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Rights to Research and the Stem Cell Debate

Restricting and Governing Research

Restricting Research

Governing Stem Cells

Researching Under Private Funds

On August 9th, 2001 President Bush designated that only stem cell lines where the derivation process (the destruction of the embryo) began prior to 9 pm on August 9th, 2001 could be used for further research. President Bush’s restriction’s on stem cell research left scientists with only  seventy-one stem cell lines to test and research. The President’s restriction on stem cell research was based on moral grounds. It prevented federal funds from continuing to promote the so called “destruction” of the embryo for scientific purposes. This blow to the scientific community was the first shot in the current war over rights to research. The book, The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney documents the continuing war that politics and political parties rage against science. According to Mooney, “Bush’s approach to the issue of embryonic stem cell research- his very first political test- showed a deep disregard for the role of scientific information in political decision making.”[1] President Bush’s decisions to restrict stem cell research on moral and religious grounds constricts the potential of research because it limits federal funding to embryonic stem cells lines that were not already in existence prior to August 9, 2001.[2] President Bush’s actions restricting stem cell research are a perfect example of how one politicizes science. According to Mooney, “Any attempt to inappropriately undermine, alter, or otherwise interfere with the scientific process, or scientific conclusions, for political or ideological reasons are how one politicizes science.” [3] Because of the impasse over the embryo and President Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research, the controversy over stem cells and the science surrounding them has become politicized. This politicization of stem cell research can be viewed as just one way that the president has politicized science as a whole. President Bush’s politicization of science raises another topic linked to the stem cell debate, a scientists right to research.

Throughout President Bush’s stint in office he has continually used science as a political tool and as a wedge issue. The President has often stifled information when he thought appropriate (information concerning global warming) or has tried to manipulate information for his advantage, for example stem cell research. The President’s Council on Bioethics has endorsed adult stem cells as an equally effective tool when it comes to stem cell research, when it has been proven countless times that in fact embryonic stem cells are the real key to future breakthroughs. By restricting the amount of embryonic stem cell lines that scientist’s can research, the President has restricted the right of scientists to research.

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Restricting Research

            Politics restricting research is not a new issue but rather new to the public sphere. Since President Bush took office in January 2001 there have been new restrictions governing what scientists can research, what conferences they can attend and what presentations they can make. Because of these restrictions some scientists have resorted to looking outside the federal wallet for funding and have begun to rely on private funds in order to continue their research, while other scientists are content with the restrictions placed on them. The restriction that the Bush administration has placed on research determines whose science is in and whose science is out. These restrictions do not only affect scientists in the laboratory, but they also restrict from whom scientists can learn and what they are allowed to teach to others. Under the current administration’s policies, a scientist must get permission if she intends to lend her expertise to the World Health Organization or plans to participate in international scientific conferences.[4] Furthermore, according to an article entitled, “Political Science” by Michael Specter, if a government scientist wishes to act as a consultant in meetings of the WHO, the scientist must first agree to advocate U.S. policy.[5]  Mooney argues that the restrictions placed on science by the current Bush administration aoriginate with the administration’s reliance on two constituencies: business and the religious right.[6] The influence of the religious right coupled with the President’s preexisting ideological values makes certain types of research taboo. According to Specter,

In 2004, the department of health and human services, saying that it needed to reduce the number of scientists attending international meetings, prevented more than a hundred and fifty government researchers from traveling to the international AIDS conference, in Bangkok. Department officials said they wanted to save money; their decision came after the organizer of the conference refused a request by the US to invite evangelist Franklin Graham to give a speech promoting faith-based solutions to the AIDS epidemic.[7]


While faith based solutions to the AIDS epidemic may be inspiring and uplifting, these solutions are in no way scientific. Specter’s observations regarding the restrictions on U.S. government sponsored attendance at the AIDS conference in Bangkok highlights the connection made by the Bush administration between science and religion. No where is this connection more clear than in the President’s Council on Bioethics.

            The President’s Council on Bioethics was formed on August 9, 2001, the same day that the president restricted the kinds of stem cell lines that could be researched. The President’s Council does not only investigate stem cells but also looks at other topics such as human cloning, neuro-ethics and sex selection. The first chairman of the president’s council on bioethics was Leon R. Kass. Dr. Kass is a member of the American Enterprise Institute which is a “non-partisan” think tank with a number of links to the Bush administration. Under Dr. Kass’s leadership the Council on Bioethics published, Monitoring Stem Cell Research. In this publication, the President’s Council exaggerates the promise of adult stem cells, which may eventually distort the potential of biomedical research.[8] Because of the restrictions placed on embryonic stem cell research and the debunking of its legitimacy by the President’s Council, many scientists have been forced to look to private funds in order to enable them to continue to research the potential and the inner workings of stem cells.

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Governing Stem Cell research

Despite the promise and possibility that embryonic stem cell research holds, governments around the world have found the need to govern stem cell research. The restrictions placed on stem cell research in the United States not only create a lack of public accountability regarding stem cell research but also let foreign competitors sneak ahead of the United States in the unspoken competition of technological and medical advancements. Because of the restrictions implemented by President Bush, embryonic stem cell research in the United State is being pursued mainly under private funding. Governing stem cell research to such an extent in the United States has effects on other countries as well. According to Cole-Turner,

Failure in the United States to develop a federal policy on embryo research will mean the research will proceed anyway with private funding and without public accountability. Other countries will be discouraged from developing their own policy; for fear that researchers will prefer the uncontrolled U.S. environment to even minimal levels of public accountability elsewhere. [9]

 Cole-Turner emphasizes the importance of governing stem cell research in a controlled manner in order to encourage other countries to develop their own policies regarding stem cell research. Governing stem cell research in a controlled environment means letting research continue but under the tight watch of an agency like the Food and Drug Administration, who would not have any say in the issue until the agency would have to approve the use of human stem cells in cell-therapy or human transplants.

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Researching Under Private Funds

President Bush’s restriction on research has hindered but not stopped the development of new embryonic stem lines. With continued research comes scientific advances and possibly cures too many debilitating and deadly diseases. The debate over a scientists’ right to research further politicizes the stem cells themselves and the discussion of stem cells in general. For now scientist have figured out ways to side step President Bush’s restriction on their research but down the road President Bush will have to figure out what to do when this privately funded research proves useful and produces a cure to a disease like juvenile diabetes.

    The scientists who chose to continue studying embryonic stem cells under private funds have to deal with the bureaucracy of researching without government money. In order to combat the extra hurdles produced by trying to study a non-government funded topic in a discipline mainly funded by federal dollars, stem cell researchers have reached out to philanthropists and state governments in order to fund further research in the field. Because of the restriction that President Bush has placed on embryonic stem cell research, scientists have to be extra careful when they are researching embryonic stem cells. President Bush’s restrictions on federal embryonic stem cell research mean that embryonic stem cell research can not be done in a federally funded lab and these scientists can not even use federally funded supplies such as a DNA sequencer or even a pencil. According to Specter, “Every dollar spent on stem cells must be segregated from research financed with public money. ‘Our best young scientists, who should be thinking about their experiments, have to be very clear about which pencil’s they can touch and which they can’t.’”[10] Because of the restrictions placed on scientists, many universities and prestigious hospitals are forming philanthropically funded research centers in order to promote the continuation of embryonic stem cell research. The University of Wisconsin at Madison recently received a $50 million donation from two of its alumni in order to build a private biomedical research facility. This donation was matched by Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation; these donations together provided a $100 million boost to a building project aimed at furthering developments and research in the field of regenerative medicine, or embryonic stem cell research. The state of Wisconsin also donated $50 million to build a separate public facility so that there would be a partnership between the public and private programs.[11] The University of Wisconsin at Madison has also affiliated itself with a private research institute and through this partnership they have developed two new human embryonic stem cell lines.[12]Yet according to Mooney the new stem cell lines that have been discovered by UWM will not receive federal funding no matter how much they could help lead to new findings.[13] Like UWM, Harvard is also creating a special research center for embryonic stem cell research.

Harvard Provost Steven Hyman has approved a protocol for deriving human embryonic stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer. Because these experiments require the use of material from human donors, we will also need approval from the institutional review boards (IRBs) that regulate experimentation with human subjects. Under current Massachusetts law, we must also seek approval from the District Attorney for these experiments. The experiments will not proceed until all necessary permissions have been obtained.[14]


The center at Harvard may have more trouble getting approval to build the research center than UWM because of differing laws in Massachusetts. But like the facility at UWM, both centers are funded by private philanthropic funds.

The University research center is only one location where the battle to continue research is taking place. Another place where scientists are getting the opportunities to do research is in certain states that have approved embryonic stem cell research. States like California have given $3 Billion to stem cell research in 2004, funding forms of stem cell research, with an emphasis on areas the federal government is neglecting. The California policy provides an escape from the rigidness of the Bush policy. [15] Through all of these alternative research routes, progress has been made. Recently scientists have found that stem cell treatment in mice can cure some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. [16]  Privately funded research enables citizens to get involved in the decision making about whether stem cell research can continue and creates a community among the people who are looking for a cure.

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[1] Mooney, Chris. The Republican was on science. New York: Basic Books, 2005. 4

[2] Ibid, 188.

[3] Ibid, 17.

[4] Specter, Michael. “Political Science: The Bush Administration’s war on the laboratory,”

       in The New Yorker. 13 March, 2006.62.

[5] Ibid, 62.

[6] Monney, Chris, 5.

[7] Specter, Alan, 62.

[8] Monney, Chris, 200

[9] Cole- Turner, Ronald.

[10] Specter, Alan, 66.

[11] “Historic Morgidge gift will foster dynamic new cientific approach.” Wisconsin Institute For Discovery. <> accessed on 4/16/06

[12] Devitt, Terry. “Wisconsin Scientists grow two new stem cell lines in animal cell-free culture.” Embryonic Stem Cells: Research at the Unniversity of Wisconsin-Madison. <> accessed on 4/16/06.

[13] Mooney, Chris, 190.

[14] “Frequently Asked Questions” Harvard Stem Cell Institute. <> accessed on 4/16/06.

[15] Mooney, Chris, 191.

[16] Ibid, 192.

Figure 6: Billout, Gary. "The Science and Politics of Stem Cell Research." The Great Stem Cell Divide.  The Stanford Medicine Magazine. <> accessed 4/30/06

Figure 7: "Harvard Stem Cell Institue." The Harvard Unniversity Gazette. <> Accessed 4/30/06.

Figure 8: "Monitoring Stem Cell Research." The Presidents Council on Bioethics. <>. Accessed 4/30/06

Figure 9: Brush, Silla. " Hoping to Avoid Brain Drain, States push to finanace stem-cell Research." The Chronicle of  Higher Education: Government and Politics. <<>

the debate over restricting scientists rights
to research.
Figure 6

A post-doctoral fellow at Harvard conduction
experiments on privately funded stem cells.
Figure 7

the cover of the the President's Council
on Bioethic's report on stem cell research
Figure 8

   Stem Cell Research In the  United States
Red = States Financing Stem Cell Research
Blue = States considering legislation to
support stem-cell research, but without
specific plans to use state funds
Yellow =States considering legislation
to finance stem-cell research
Figure 9

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