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Democrats consider way forward on ES stem cell research in the US

12 January 2009
Appeared in BioNews 490

As President-Elect Barack Obama's inauguration date approaches, Democrats in the US are considering the best way to overturn the current restrictions on embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. Mr Obama has already indicated that his administration will relax the restrictions but he now must decide whether to do so through legislative measures, involving debates in Congress, or by executive order.

Democrat Senator Ben Nelson explained the challenges facing the new administration: 'It is a very divisive issue, and it is a tough way to start. You don't want to stumble out of the box.' Legislative change would ensure that Obama's ES cell policy is permanently placed on the statute book and could include more far-reaching measures to facilitate federally funded scientific research. Yet there is concern that raising the issue in Congress could place those Democrats from more conservative states at risk come the next elections in 2010. So far, legislative attempts by the Democrats to overturn the restrictions in 2006 and 2007 were both ultimately vetoed by the current

President despite making it through Congress. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, has indicated favour of legislative attempts. 'I myself would favour legislation, so it is the law,' she said. An executive order to set aside those issued by President Bush would simply reverse the current policy. It would not mean further legislative reform would not be an option at a later stage, however, to tackle any remaining restrictions.

If the Democrats decide to push their reforms through Congress, they say that by framing the issue in different terms concentrating on health care rather than abortion, it may be possible to side-step much of the controversy. Nevertheless, the pro-life movement would still resist reform. 'If they force it by legislation, those will be the votes the pro-life community will score to educate the voters as to where members stand on these issues,' explained Republican Joe Pitts.

What is clear is that lifting the current restrictions is high on the agenda and the Democrats are likely to move quickly. 'I think we can do this in a win-win situation,' said Democrat Diana DeGette, who authored the legislation previously vetoed by President Bush. She has indicated that Obama should not get drawn into protracted debates in Congress which can be reserved for a later date, and instead should act decisively in overturning the current restrictions immediately by executive order.

Meanwhile, federally funded scientists continue to use a technique to reprogram adult cells into an embryonic-like state in addition to research on the few cell lines made available before 2001, where available. Dr George Daley, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said that stem cells from human embryos remain the 'gold standard', however. 'There are still so many unknowns,' he said. 'I am going to continue to have my lab use both at the same time.'

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