April 13, 2024


 Supporters of embryonic stem cell research are regrouping after setbacks in the US and Australia. In the US, President George W. Bush has been lambasted for vetoing a bill — the first veto of his administration — which would have authorised funding for research on "spare" IVF embryos. The leading journal Nature described this as a monumental error". It points out that the issue is now dead in the water, until 2009, after the next election, although some states, notably California, plan to provide funding. "The scientific opportunities squandered in that time are irretrievable; the years of human life and health lost, unknowable," it laments. It advocates, instead, a funding model like "America’s uneasy but workable abortion policy": grants for stem cells, but none for destroying embryos.

With the US heading towards mid-term elections, , saying afterwards that his boss "would not use that term". (What Bush did say was that he opposed "the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others".)

Many commentators were heated in their criticism and hyperbolic in their prose. Bush’s religiously motivated" veto to the woeful health of existing American children and the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians recently "with the tacit approval of the US".

A similar stoush is taking place in Australia after its Prime Minister, John Howard, declared that his government would not lift a ban on therapeutic cloning. As in the US, however, the states are free to forge their own regulations about stem cell research and two premiers, Victoria and Queensland, are strong supporters of embryo research. However, the new premier of the largest state, New South Wales, Morris Iemma, sided with the Federal government. This outraged the man who bequeathed him the job, Bob Carr. The former premier was reportedly fuming that his state was now "in the hands of Calabrian choirboys" who had capitulated to Catholic prejudice against medical research.

There seems to be a danger in both the US and Australia of the issue turning into ideological trench warfare instead of informed debate. At its heart is whether embryos in Petri dishes are human beings with human rights. But the merits of this claim are seldom debated in the media. Instead, opponents bicker over the respective merits of embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells and the accuracy of scientific claims. Even leading scientific journals are taking sides. Science published an express letter which was bitter attack on the scientific and personal integrity of , an adviser to opponents of embryo research. It was timed to appear just before the US Senate voted.


Although UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has been accused of being George Bush’s poodle in his Middle East policy, this certainly does not hold true for stem cells. Shortly after the Bush veto, Blair was touting Britain as an ideal place for embryo research. On a four-day visit to California, he met several bioscience companies in the San Francisco area and unveiled plans for a joint UK-Californian conference on stem cell technology in Britain in November. "This is an area that I think is of fundamental importance for my country and its economic development in the future," Blair told the businessmen.