Some Political Background:

Stem cells are unspecified cells that can develop into cells with distinctive functions, such as nerve or brain cells. They appear to have the ability to repair cells and could be useful in treating diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and cancer. Although stem cells can be found in adults, a type of stem cell found in embryos are thought to have the most potential to treat disorders.

Congress is holding hearings (April 2000) on whether federal support should be used for stem cells research. A list of 100 universities, medical schools, and clinicians support legislation sponsored by Senator Spector and Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa which would permit stem cell research. The bill, S.2015, would allow the federal government to finance embryonic stem-cell research, which Congress now prohibits. Supporters include the Johns Hopkins University, the Association of American Universities and the American Medical Association.

There is a current Congressional ban on the use of federal money for research that relies on the destruction of embryos. To obtain stem cells from an embryo, the embryo must be destroyed. In December of 1999, the National Institutes of Health announced that it intends to finance stem-cell studies without circumventing federal law. The N.I.H. believes it can proceed because it will require federally supported researchers to obtain excess embryos from private fertility clinics. The clinics discard embryos that couples don't use. Senator Specter's bill would clear the way for the agency to finance stem-cell studies.

The pro & cons: While private clinics are conducting stem-cell studies, research advocates say the field will languish without federal support, Senator Harkin noted. In addition, some scientists say that there could be troubling ethical lapses without government regulation. Many fear that embryos would be harvested solely for research.