Sunday, July 31, 2005

Did Bill Frist Betray His Principles?

Did he misrepresent himself to pro-lifers? In a word, no.

With a touchy issue like embryonic stem cell research, our passions sometimes obscure reality. When I review the remarks of Bill Frist on the floor of the Senate, I find it even more difficult to credit the proposition that he has somehow sold out. An excerpt:
...Adult stem cell research is not controversial on ethical grounds -- while embryonic stem cell research is. Right now, to derive embryonic stem cells, an embryo -- which many, including myself, consider nascent human life -- must be destroyed. But I also strongly believe -- as do countless other scientists, clinicians, and doctors -- that embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide.

I'll come back to that later. Right now, though, let me say this: I believe today -- as I believed and stated in 2001, prior to the establishment of current policy -- that the federal government should fund embryonic stem cell research. And as I said four years ago, we should federally fund research only on embryonic stem cells derived from blastocysts leftover from fertility therapy, which will not be implanted or adopted but instead are otherwise destined by the parents with absolute certainty to be discarded and destroyed.

Let me read to you my 5th principle as I presented it on this floor four years ago:

No. 5. Provide funding for embryonic stem cell research only from blastocysts that would otherwise be discarded. We need to allow Federal funding for research using only those embryonic stem cells derived from blastocysts that are left over after in vitro fertilization and would otherwise be discarded (Cong. Rec. 18 July 2001: S7847).

I made it clear at the time, and do so again today, that such funding should only be provided within a system of comprehensive ethical oversight. Federally funded embryonic research should be allowed only with transparent and fully informed consent of the parents. And that consent should be granted under a careful and thorough federal regulatory system, which considers both science and ethics. Such a comprehensive ethical system, I believe, is absolutely essential. Only with strict safeguards, public accountability, and complete transparency will we ensure that this new, evolving research unfolds within accepted ethical bounds.

My comprehensive set of 10 principles, as outlined in 2001 (Cong. Rec. 18 July 2001: S7846-S7851) are as follows:

1. Ban Embryo Creation for Research;
2. Continue Funding Ban on Derivation;
3. Ban Human Cloning;
4. Increase Adult Stem Cell Research Funding;
5. Provide Funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research Only From Blastocysts That Would Otherwise Be Discarded;
6. Require a Rigorous Informed Consent Process;
7. Limit Number of Stem Cell Lines;
8. Establish A Strong Public Research Oversight System;
9. Require Ongoing, Independent Scientific and Ethical Review;
10. Strengthen and Harmonize Fetal Tissue Research Restrictions.

That is what I said four years ago, and that is what I believe today. After all, principles are meant to stand the test of time -- even when applied to a field changing as rapidly as stem cell research.

This is from CNN on July 18, 2001:
Bush is being urged to allow federal funding for the research by such anti-abortion political figures as Nancy Reagan, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, and now the very influential Bill Frist, R-Tennessee.

Q: What is the effect of Frist's announcement of his support for the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research?

A: Frist's announcement Wednesday in support of federal funding for embryonic stem cell studies will have a huge impact on the debate and perhaps on Bush's decision. Frist was a top heart and lung transplant surgeon before joining Congress, and as the only physician in the Senate he is the GOP "go-to" man for all issues relating to health care policy.

The Tennessee Republican is a key political ally of Bush. Frist was Bush's liaison to the Senate during his presidential campaign and is in charge of the committee to elect Republicans to the Senate. On medical policy he is arguably the most influential Republican in the country. Just last month Frist led the charge for the White House on patients' rights legislation.

Although Frist's office and the White House said the Tennessee senator's announcement was not coordinated, he has so much influence as a doctor steeped in science and as an anti-abortion lawmaker that he hopes, and most believe, that his opinion will sway Bush.

Q: What do conservatives say about the influence of Frist's announcement?

A: Conservatives who have been fighting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research concede Frist's announcement was a major blow to their cause. Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, both of whom consider such research to be the taking of a human life, admit Frist's support makes their fight much harder, if not nearly impossible.

Why? Because conservatives who have been afraid to come out in favor of funding such research now have the political cover do to so because of the weight Frist carries on this issue.

Q: What did Frist say in announcing his support for the research?

A: Part of the reason Frist's decision has such an impact is because of the detailed conditions put on his support for the controversial studies. The Tennessee Republican issued 10 principles he said must go hand-in-hand with any taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research. Those conditions, meant as a compromise approach, are set to allay many of the ethical and moral concerns people have with using human embryos for research.

Frist's principles include banning human cloning and allowing taxpayer dollars for research only on embryos created for in-vitro fertilization and not from abortions. The only way the embryos can be used, according to Frist's proposed guidelines, would be if donors have already decided to discard them and have approved their use in research.

I can't see how his position could be stated with any more clarity than that...

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