Understanding the Stem Cell Research Bill

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The House of Representatives embryonic stem cell bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), now moves to the Senate. Supporters there believe they have enough votes to send the measure to President Bush's desk, despite his threatened veto. Castle and David Prentis, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, join host Ed Gordon to discuss the issue.

ED GORDON, host:

The embryonic stem cell bill co-sponsored by Democrat Diana DeGette and Republican Mike Castle now moves to the Senate. Supporters believe they have enough votes to send the measure to President Bush's desk, despite his threatened veto. For a closer look at the bill, and its political future, we're now joined by Congressman Castle of Delaware.

Congressman, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

Representative MIKE CASTLE (Republican, Delaware): Thank you very much.

GORDON: Why did you believe this bill's so important to break ranks with Republicans and vote for it?

Rep. CASTLE: It's a very basic question of 110 million people--about one out of three in the United States of America--who suffer from a debilitating disease, perhaps, diabetes or juvenile diabetes, all the way through cancer, heart and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, whatever. Stem cell research, in general, and I'm for all medical research, has shown great promise, but the greatest promise is in embryonic stem cell research because these are stem cells that have not yet differentiated into the--one of the 200 stem cells in your body, and could be directed to do so, and, in that way, potentially, could help relieve a lot of problems, unlike the adult stem cells, which can only address the blood-borne diseases. So the potential is tremendous to help so many people whose lives are foreshortened or the quality of life is unfortunately badly impacted.

GORDON: That being said, Congressman, I'm wondering if you struggled with the idea, as some suggest, that these embryos, in their minds, are simply unborn children? Did you have to wrestle with that moral question?

Rep. CASTLE: No. I did not have to wrestle with that moral question, although that's a legitimate moral, even biological, question, and I understand that. But the reason it's a little bit simpler than wrestling with it is that, in the in vitro fertilization process, they create more fertilized eggs than are needed, simply because it often doesn't work, and they don't have to re-do the process, and they keep them in a frozen state, and then as people either have children, or for whatever reason decide not to go forward, they, basically, take the embryos out of that frozen state and discard them as hospital waste.

So you're, basically, talking about using those, and they're going to be discarded as hospital waste, so no matter what word you want to use, destruction, killing, you can describe it however you want, it's gonna happen anyhow, as opposed to be able to be--to use them for research with the sign-off, obviously, of everybody involved in the process, including the creators of the embryo, and, if that's the case, if that's the equation that we're dealing with, it's pretty simple. We want to help everybody in the world, particularly, Americans, with this research, and I think it should go forward.

GORDON: Congressman, are you disappointed that you're hearing from the White House that the president says if this measure passes he will indeed veto it?

Rep. CASTLE: Of course, we prefer that not to be the case, and we overcame huge opposition from the White House, all the leadership in the House of Representatives on the Republican side, yesterday, to get this bill passed, which shows something about the receptivity of it across the United States of America. And that's true in the Senate, as well. That war will start today. And I would hope that the White House would back off from that. Having said that, I don't think that's likely to happen. So, perhaps, there's some middle ground that we can reach or strike. I want the research to go forward. Whether our legislation actually ever becomes law is not as relevant as some policy change to allow the research to move forward so that's what my ultimate goal is so I understand where they are. But, you know, we are going to continue to persist in this and so, hopefully, when it's all said and done, that we can work out something that everybody can agree is satisfactory so that we can advance the research. It's a temporal thing. This is gonna happen. It's gonna happen someplace in the world, perhaps, California; perhaps, Indonesia; or whatever. But we want it to happen sooner rather than later so the suffering can cease as soon as possible.

GORDON: Mike Castle is a Republican congressman from Delaware. He co-sponsored the embryonic stem cell research bill that now sits and heads its way to the Senate. I thank you very much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Rep. CASTLE: Thank you very much.

GORDON: Now for a different perspective, we're joined by David Prentice, a senior fellow of--for Life Sciences at Family Research Council.

I thank you very much for joining us, Mr. Prentice. I'm sure you heard the congressman there, and know all of the arguments. You see this slightly differently. You do see this as a bigger moral question than the congressman.

Mr. DAVID PRENTICE (Senior Fellow Of Life Science, Family Research Council): There is an interesting question here. We're debating not just science but also the ethics, and, biologically, yes, the human embryos are the earliest stages of human development. The science, though, has been interesting. We keep hearing about the hope and promise of embryonic stem cell research but the published science so far does not back that up, and that's after over 20 years of research with the mouse embryonic. By contrast, the adult stem cells, the umbilical cord stem cells, have treated far more than just these blood type diseases, as was mentioned. They've been treating brain type of disorders, including Parkinson's, spinal cord injury, heart damage, and, you know, if we really cared about the patients, the adult stem cell, the cord blood stem cell are the ones that are already starting to treat patients now for these disorders, and we'd be putting our money, our taxpayer funding behind that.

GORDON: Yeah. Scientists will suggest to you that that really is apples and oranges, and during the course of trying to find R&D, research and development, for many of these diseases, that if you could use both hand in hand you'd be better served.

Mr. PRENTICE: If it were just a scientific argument, that might be tenable, although, again, the published results from the embryonic are very poor. The cells still in the animals tend to have problems forming tumors, getting transplant rejection, being able to actually get the cells that they want. The cells are just very difficult to control, whereas the adult stem cells--hundreds of published papers--a paper just last week in New England Journal of Medicine where they treated young children for a disease called Krabbe syndrome, which is a neurological disorder, not just a blood disorder. These kids usually die by two years of age. After treating with umbilical cord blood stem cells, many of these kids now are up to seven years old with very little in term--or no symptoms.

GORDON: Would you like to see the science community, the scientific community, move this thing forward more so than we are seeing with he political community?

Mr. PRENTICE: Well, I think the science is moving forward. You know, we've been funding embryonic, certainly, the animal stem cell research, for many years. The human embryonic is fully funded. We've got to actually 39 lines, still frozen, of human embryonic stem cells that have never been touched. So, you know, the resources are there. It's more a matter of being able to make the cells do anything. I do think in the end the ultimate answer where we go one way or the other will probably depend on the results in terms of the scientific publication.

GORDON: And do you believe, with about 30 seconds to go, that we are seeing political wrangling and pressure move this forward vs. scientific steps?

Mr. PRENTICE: Well, I think in one sense we are seeing the politics. People are responding to various sorts of polls. Many of those polls just depends on how you ask the question, if you're asking whether it's just a matter of cures. I mean, who would vote against cures? So you're seeing that, but a lot of that's not based on the scientific evidence.

GORDON: All right. David Prentice, a senior fellow for Life Sciences at Family Research Council. We thank you for your time, and your efforts to join us this morning. We apologize for the garbled sound.

Mr. PRENTICE: Well, thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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