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September 14, 2005

Frist Announces He Will Support Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act

Madeleine Carson

      Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) announced in late July that he would support a modified Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would lift restrictions placed on federal funding of stem cell research by President Bush in August 2001. Frist's speech, given much to the dismay of fellow republicans and conservative religious groups across the country, could potentially sway many undecided congressmen in favor of the act, to be voted on in the Senate sometime this fall.

      Of particular importance was the go-ahead Frist gave to scientists to use stem cells from human embryos; thus reintroducing the ethical debate on the use of human embryos, the primary reason Bush will not support the act. Despite supporting the act, Frist maintains that the rights and dignity of the human embryo (inevitably destroyed when its stem cells are extracted) must be respected.

      Curiously, Frist is in agreement with the President. So where does this leave him in light of using the stem cells of human embryos? While allowing that an embryo is nascent human life, Frist, who is also an M.D., encouraged Congress to recognize the unique properties of embryonic stem cells, particularly their ability to become any type of tissue in the human body. This makes them especially valuable in comparison to adult stem cells, whose ability to develop into certain tissues is limited. As Frist pointed out, this research requires an increase in federal funding, as those already existing stem cell lines are losing the properties that make them valuable.

      Frist, in advancing the science of stem cell research, at the same time tried to keep it within an "ethical framework that honors dignity of life and respect for the individual." Among the modifications Frist proposed to the bill (that passed the House in May) was the strict requirement of transparent and informed consent, thus ensuring that it was the donor's decision to contribute their embryos to science without financial or other incentives. Frist also repeatedly stressed the need to use embryonic cells solely from those left over from in vitro fertilizations and other fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded or destroyed.

      It is refreshing to know that there is someone in the Senate with a medical background supporting this promising science. Scientists and bio-technicians must be allowed to research embryonic stem cells until the medical world is fully knowledgeable of their scientific properties and uses. This research will require a great deal of time, effort and government funding. Although some criticize Frist for being contradictory in claming to be pro-life while endorsing the use of human embryos for stem cell research, he did the right thing in urging Congress and the American public to recognize the scientific potential that stem cells hold. Frist's support, which is no guarantee that the bill will go through, is certainly a step in the right direction.

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