Senator Harkin — Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Circa 2005
3 images of Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Tom Harkin


Dear ABILITY Readers,

This is an exciting time for millions of Americans who have juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s and other diseases and disabilities. They have new hope for treatment—and perhaps a cure—thanks to embryonic stem cell research.

Last spring, the House of Representatives passed a bill— HR 810—that would vastly expand the number of stem cell lines eligible for federally funded research. The measure was approved with a strong bipartisan vote, 238 to 194. Today, strong momentum continues to build behind an identical bill Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) and I have introduced in the Senate.

We have broad bipartisan support from people like Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch and former First Lady Nancy Reagan. And in a dramatic speech on the Senate floor in late July, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) announced his support for our bill, explaining that he no longer thinks the Administration’s policies enable scientists to pursue the “truly magnificent, truly remarkable properties” of stem cells taken from days-old human embryos.

Our bill responds to a harsh new reality. We now know that all 22 stem cell lines available under President Bush’s restrictive policy are contaminated with mouse feeder cells, making them dangerous for use in humans. Since the president announced his policy arbitrarily banning stem cell lines created after August 9, 2001, scientists have made great advances in deriving stem cell lines. Many of the new lines have been grown without mouse feeder cells.

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Shouldn’t our top scientists be studying those new lines? We don’t require our astronomers to explore the heavens with 19th century telescopes, and we don’t require our geologists to study the Earth with tape measures. If we are serious about realizing the promise of stem cell research, our biomedical researchers need access to the best stem cell lines available, as long as they meet stringent ethical requirements.

Our aim is to pass HR 810 without amendments, which means we can avoid a conference committee and send it directly to the president’s desk. But there’s a problem. The White House opposes this legislation, and powerful Republicans are maneuvering to kill the bill. To that end, they are trying to muddy the waters. They want the Senate to vote on four to six bills, some of which have nothing to do with stem cell research.

Their strategy is to convince senators that instead of supporting HR 810 they can vote for a different bill that promotes alternative methods of deriving stem cells. They figure if they can peel off enough senators from HR 810, they can keep us from getting the 60 votes we need to stop a filibuster.

Let’s be clear, these alternative approaches are currently nothing but theories. They are hypothetical, speculative and totally unproven. By contrast, we know how to derive embryonic stem cells.

And let me emphasize that none of the additional stem cell lines would require the creation of new embryos. These lines could be derived from any of the more than 400,000 embryos that are left over from fertility treatments—embryos that would otherwise be discarded. The choice before us is to discard these leftover embryos as medical waste, or to use them in research to cure disease and save lives. It is the second choice, I believe, that is truly respectful of human life.

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Should we pursue the various alternative methods? Of course we should. But it is foolish to impede medical research on existing human embryonic stem cell lines while these more speculative methods are explored.

As I write this, people we love are dying from Parkinson’s disease and ALS. Children are battling juvenile diabetes. These people don’t have 10 years to wait to see if alternative methods pan out. They need help now.

At a public rally supporting HR 810, actor Michael J. Fox—who has Parkinson’s disease—was asked what advice he would give to President Bush on HR 810. His answer was, “Carpe diem.” Seize the day.

For millions of Americans, this issue is a matter of life and death. They can’t wait any longer for our top scientists to realize the full potential of stem cell research. So this fall we intend to move as urgently as possible to pass HR 810 in the Senate. We hope the president will come to realize that our approach is ethical, moderate and just plain common sense.


Senator Tom Harkin

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