Watch CBSN Live

Scientists and Policymakers Debate Bush's Stem Cell Decision

When President Bush decided in early August 2001 on a limited go-ahead for stem cell research, the debate over what to do only intensified.

CBS’s Bob Schieffer invited a few guests to explore different sides of the issue. As the scientist who will head President Bush’s new council on stem cell research, Dr. Leon Kass will be the key adviser to the president on what to do next. Also weighing in on the discussion is Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, an advocate for increased stem cell research. He is joined by Pat Robertson, president of the Christian Coalition, and by Dr. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, one of the first scientists to isolate human stem cells.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Let me say first, I think many people do not know what your position is on stem cell research. You're going to head up this advisory panel. Where do you come down on all this?

DR. LEON KASS: Well, I don't have a firm position on stem cell research myself. I think it's a terribly difficult and vexing question. I do think that however one comes out on the decision that the president made, I do think that he gave the country a wonderful lesson in the complexity of the subject. He laid the issues out very clearly and I think represented what all the various sides have at stake and what their positions are. And I think one didn't know until the very end which way he was going to go.

And I think that the most important thing is that we recognize that this is just the first of a long series of discussions, not just about embryonic stem cell research, but about a whole array of biomedical developments that raise profound moral and human questions. I think that's the main thing. The president has lifted up to view these terribly vexing questions in which we try to take advantages of these wonderful developments in medical science without undermining human decency, human dignity, and respect for life.

Do you not oppose in vitro fertilization?

KASS: That's wrong. That's been said about me. When it first developed, I had worries about the safety and wondered whether it was ethical to do these experiments on the child. But in a published article in 1970, 1978, I endorsed the use of in vitro fertilization, and I celebrate its benefits.

SCHIEFFER: Alright. Well, I'm glad we can clear that up to start the program. Should we expect, and how do you envision this council that's going to be formed? Would we expect that it would be, in general, more restrictive or very careful about where this research could go? Would you expect it would clear the way for more research? What do you expect this council to do?

KASS: Well, the council has been given two charges. One is to monitor embryonic stem cell research. But, also, and in the larger sense, to study and to provide a national forum for the consideration of the moral and humn meaning of the advances in biomedical and behavioral science. I don't think that we are intended to be the regulatory body in working on the details. We mean to monitor this research.

And the most important thing to say is that just as the president, in reaching his decision, sought advice from all sides of the controversy, this council will most emphatically contain people of different voices. And those voices will be heard. I don't regard our task as laying down the rules or telling the president what to do as much as it is to make sure that he sees in the deepest, richest, and most comprehensive way, the understanding of the issues. I'd like to give reassurance on that. This is not a roadblock committee.

SCHIEFFER: Now, the president has mentioned these 60 lines. These cells can replicate themselves virtually indefinitely. And so we have these cells that research has already been done on, and they comprise the 60 lines. But some people are saying maybe here really aren't 60 lines, that companies hold patents on some, some are overseas, some may not be up to our standards. Do you agree that there are 60 lines upon which research can be done?

KASS: That information was obtained from the NIH very recently. They've conducted a worldwide search. I believe that about 30 of these lines are in the United States, about 30 are abroad. Many of them are owned privately. But some of the people who do own the patents on these have made it perfectly clear they're willing to share these lines.

And the NIH is a powerful negotiator. And I have no doubts that these cells will be made available.

I guess the key question is, do you feel at this point that the lines that are available are enough?

KASS: I'm not an expert in this question, but I have spoken to some very distinguished people who do this embryological research. There is difference of opinion, but before the count was made, very distinguished people in this field, people who do stem cell research said to me, "Look, if we could have 15 to 30 lines, that would be enough to do this basic science, to find out whether the promise of stem cell research for regenerative medicine can be realized, to do the studies that could differentiate these cell lines into different tissues and to begin to see whether they will be of therapeutic benefit."

And I think that the work that's been done in mice, about 90% of that work in mice has been done with merely five stem cell lines. So I think for the time being at least, I think that we have a great opportunity to explore the potential with these lines.

SCHIEFFER: What if it's not enough?

KASS: I think that that's a serious question, and we will have to revisit it. But I think for the time being and certainly for the basic research and to get these questions answered and to make sure that this isn't just a lot ohype, I think that this will be sufficient, and sufficient perhaps even for a decade.

SCHIEFFER: I want to go to another expert now, Dr. John Gearhart from Johns Hopkins. And you were one of the first, I understand, to isolate the human stem cell. I would just ask you your reaction to what you just heard.

DR. JOHN GEARHART: Well, I think we're in a very early phase of trying to determine exactly what this policy is that the president is recommending and the keystone, or the key portion of this, to me are these lines. And we do have questions about them.

When the announcement was made on Thursday evening, many of us were unaware that so many existed, which may not be so surprising. But we would like to know more about them. We'd like to know, do they have the qualifications that we would like to see in the stem cell lines since they're coming from different sources?

Also, what is the accessibility? You raised that issue. Very important issue. Will they be distributed without any type of binding agreements for intellectual property or anything else?

So it's of great concern. I'd like to introduce another part in this, though. And you raised that. We know that these stem cell lines, although they have unlimited growth potential, we know that there is shelf life to these. And we are very concerned: When we will need more lines, what happens then? And I think it will be sooner rather than later.

SCHIEFFER: Alright, well, let's talk to Arlen Specter. You are sponsoring legislation to go further with the research. First, tell me a little bit about what that is, and then tell me how do you think that the Congress is going to react to the president's decision.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, Republican, Pennsylvania: The legislation, Bob, would eliminate the current prohibition against federal funding. Our appropriations subcommittee has increased funding for the National Institutes f Health tremendously, and it has been my sense that we ought to be using that on this tremendous potential.

I believe that Congress will now have more hearings. Our subcommittee has already had nine hearings. And from what we have already heard, I am very skeptical that 60 cell lines will be sufficient or that they will be variable enough.

SCHIEFFER: If I understand it, what you want to do is to be able to do research federally sponsored research on some of these embryos that are produced as a byproduct of in vitro fertilization or they're going to be basically thrown away.

SPECTER: Right. There are 100,000 and they are going to be discarded. And they have shown just enormous potential for curing Parkinson's or delaying the onset of Alzheimer's or spinal cord or cancer or heart ailments.

They have just such tremendous potential. And you have scientists really all across America who are just waiting for these applications. And the fuding has been provided for by Congress.

We have had hearings on people with muscular dystrophy and Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's--heart-wrenching situations. And the scientific studies that I have seen are that you need more than 60 lines.

SCHIEFFER: Okay, let's go to Pat Robertson because we know that Pat Robertson is prolife. We know that Pat Robertson had real questions about whether this was moral to conduct this research, and yet Mr. Robertson, when the president made his speech the other night--I have the release you put out--you said, "I believe President Bush has provided an elegant solution to the thorny issue of stem cell research."

Why do you find this moral when you find it immoral to do the work that Arlen Specter is talking about, research on these embryos that are left over from in vitro fertilization?

PAT ROBERTSON, president, Christian Coalition: Well, you said it, Bob. They're embryos. And I think those of us who would hold a prolife position feel that the destruction of human life is wrong, and the doctrine of utilitarianism to say, "Well, your disease is more important than my life," is a wrong philosophy. Whereas what the president has done is said, "These are already in existence, these 60 lines. Let's get on with it."

But the truth is, there is an article in the New York Times on March 8 that indicated they injected some embryonic stem cells in the brains of people with Parkinson's, and they began to jerk uncontrollably. And the reaction was totally without expectation. And when it was over, the researchers said: We've got to go back to more animal research. We don't have enough knowledge on this.

So we don't understand enough about this yet. The finest scientists don't know enough. So why not take what's there, use it, and say--let's do that first instead of complaining we don't have more. There's plenty there to take care of most of the research that is needed in this world.

SCHIEFFER: If I could just put the question of research aside for just a minute and just talk about the philosophy or the morality of it. Explain to me why you believe it is moral to conduct research on a cell that research has already been conducted on, why that is moral, and it would be immoral to conduct it on one of these embryos? And I say that because it would seem to me if you're conducting research on something where the research has already been conducted, which in the beginning you called immoral, it is almost like in law, the fruit of a tainted tree.

ROBERTSON: I talked to Karl Rove about the very thing. He called me and we went over this fruit of the tainted tree. But the truth is we've got to help somebody like Christopher Reeve. We have got to help people who have Parkinson's disease. We have to help people with juvenile diabetes. We have to do something for them. And this work has already been done. These blastocte have already been killed. So, we are not going with any new killing of human life. Now, we can get into the semantics or the ethical dilemmas, but I think it is just a practical reality that this is a very useful science that has been held up because of the desire of all of us to prevent the destruction of human life. It's just that simple.

Senator Specter, Senator Harkin is cosponsor of the legislation with you that would devote federal funds to research into these embryos which are left over from in vitro fertilization. It's my understanding he is now saying that perhaps he's not ready to move as quickly as he once indicated now that he's heard the president. What can you tell us about that?

SPECTER: Well, I believe that referred, Bob, to pressing for a vote. But I do believe that Senator Harkin joins me in wanting to get really very, very deeply into the issue of how many stem cell lines there are, their availability, their viability, their flexibility. Our subcommittee has had nine hearings on the subject immediately after the matter came into view back in November of 1999, and we will be having hearings which will be going in great depth to find out these answers to these important scientific questions.

SCHIEFFER: But does that mean you're not going to push for this legislation right now?

SPECTER: Well, my instinct is that we ought to take off the federal ban. Right now there's a prohibition of using these extensive funds which we have appropriated. And I believe that that ban ought to be removed.

SCHIEFFER: You think you got the votes to do that?

SPECTER: Well, I think, I think we probably do. It's hard to say because right now people are reacting to the president's presentation. He made a powerful, reasoned presentation. I don't agree with his conclusion, but it has left a lot of people wondering. So I think we need the hearings. We need to refocus. But this issue's going to come up on our appropriations bill next month.

SCHIEFFER: OK. Dr. Gearhart, is time of the essence in this, or can we afford to wait awhile?

GEARHART: Oh, I think if you speak with different patients, you'll find that time is of the essence. And this is precisely, I think, what the federal funding issues are about. As you know, up to this point, all the funding into this area has come from the private side--individual donors, patient-based groups, and certain companies. Very few investigators are involved.

What federal funding will enable us to do is to put money into the hands of the most effective and productive biomedical researchers in the world. These are those present in our universities and hospitals that rely upon federal funds. With those funds in hand, this work will progress much more rapidly than without.

SCHIEFFER: What do you think, just in general way, Pat Robertson, about this whole idea of federal funding into this area?

ROBERTSON: Well, I encourage it, and I'm especially encouraged the president wants to talk about adult stem cells. There's a great deal of material, you know, from placentas, from umbilical cords from cadavers, all types of material is available, and the research can very well go forward with these products as well as the embryonic stem cells. I think they have enough material.

I disagree with my good friend Arlen, who went to law school with me at Yale. I think the president's going to veto this if they expand it because there will be an ethical outcry. So, I think it, you know, it would be nice to get all the facts before us, but I don't think the president's going to go along with it. There's plenty of material and I do believe that if we go forward with government funding, it will sort of foreclose private enterprise from creating these embryos in petri dishes and the killing them, which is exactly what the Jones clinic here in Tidewater did just a few weeks ago.

SCHIEFFER: Does it bother you, Mr. Robertson, that some would equate this to back in the days when Galileo built his telescope and there were those who refused to look in it because they said we already know all we need to know about the sun and the moon and the stars? Is this kind of a latter-day version of that?

ROBERTSON: Well you know, Bob, I'm not on the campus of some of the Luddites on the so-called Right who want to shut this whole thing down. I believe in research, but, you know, you open Pandora's box. Aldous Huxley wrote something called the Brave New World, and it's just frightening to think of some of the things that can be done with human clones. So, I think there has to be some ethical check and governor on the progress of science, but I'm all for science and scientific research to alleviate human suffering. I think it's very important and I think the president's providing an avenue to make that happen.

SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just ask Senator Specter about the other side of that because in an editorial this morning in the New York Times, the president says, "We don't end some lives for the benefit of others." He goes on to say, "One need not be prolife to be disturbed by the prospect of cloning or fetal farming to provide spare human parts."

By going into this research, are we running the risk of what Pat Robertson calls this brave new world, which I think nobody wants?

SPECTER: I think we are not.

There is general agreement against human cloning. But I think that really raises a major fear point, which is not realistic.

I think that President Bush is exactly right when he says we don't end some lives to help other lives. But that's not what we're dealing with here. We are dealing with embryos, which are discarded, and they're going to bthrown away.

So it's either a matter of using them to save lives or losing them. And when you ask the really critical question, Bob--Is time of the essence?--one of my constituents in Pittsburgh who has Parkinson's disease, whenever I see him, he has an hourglass, and he turns it upside down and lets the sand drain through.

And every hour to him, where there is no research, is just devastating. And he's been pressing me, as have many others.

I have been on this committee, subcommittee, which controls the federal funding, along with Senator Harkin. We have just been inundated and have seen so many heart-wrenching cases. And that's why, when you say time is of the essence, every day that we lose, we're losing lives.

SCHIEFFER: Well, Dr. Gearhart, what about that? You know there is, you know, the image of the mad scientist, perhaps, of Dr. Frankenstein out there and all of that sort of thing. Do people who do research on this--are you concerned about ethical questions?

GEARHART: Well, of course we are. I mean we have to be responsible scientists, and we have societal responsibilities. We also have responsibilities, I think, to provide, in our research, therapies for millions of people who need them.

We don't act unto ourselves. We have committees, panels that review our work. We certainly would subscribe to any type of national policy that came along. So I'm not concerned about that, doing anything outside of the box, so to speak.

SCHIEFFER: Dr. Kass tells me that this panel he's going to put together, he says he wants to assure everyone that all viewpoints will be represented. Do you have any concerns about this?

GEARHART: No, I don't. I think as long as it is a cross section of individuals in our society and we can reach some type of a consensus of how to go forward and that committee would serve to facilitate this research, I would be for it.
©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue