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Western Press Review: Commentary Broadens On U.S. Stem Cell Debate

Prague, 15 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The debate among U.S. press commentators over stem cell research has spread across the Atlantic.


Britain's "Financial Times" carries today a commentary by Dr. Roger Pederson, a prominent U.S. stem cell researcher who is moving his work next month from the University of California to the University of Cambridge. Pederson says that U.S. restrictions on biomedical research will damage the country both medically and economically.

Pederson says that guidelines for stem cell research developed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health over the past two years should be implemented. He writes: "They provide the ethical standards for deriving the necessary additional embryonic stem cell lines. As a result of [U.S. President George W.] Bush's stance, however, in the United States the derivation and all further work on these cell lines would need to be done by privately funded researchers."

The commentary says: "It is critically important to avoid laws preventing any aspect of stem cell research, such as legislation recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would criminalize genomic replacement studies. These would have a chilling effect on all stem cell research."

Pederson concludes: "The potential benefits of stem cell research promise to transform health care and stimulate economic growth. But they will accrue to countries where the policies and funding encourage, rather than hobble, the stem cell enterprise."


"The New York Times" laments in an editorial today what it says is the U.S.'s "pinched response" to stem cell research in contrast to the openness of other nations. The newspaper says: "The controversy over stem cells was not ended by George W. Bush's much-publicized address to the nation. Actually, we have only just begun to argue." It says, "Even if Mr. Bush was right [about the range of possibilities that remain after the restrictions he has imposed], his plan will not hold up over the long haul."

The editorial says, "It is disheartening to watch the administration's pinched response to the medical possibilities that stem cells offer, particularly when other countries have been so much more open."


"The Boston Globe's" Joan Vennochi comments today that President Bush's stem cell speech last week seemed politically effective at first, but is not holding up well under scrutiny. She writes: "With last week's decision to support some federal funding for stem cell research, George W. Bush embarked on a defining moment of his presidency, we are told. If that's true, it defines how low the expectations remain for this stranger." She says, "Already, the ground is starting to feel a little shaky."

Vennochi writes: "If Bush truly believes that life begins at conception, he cannot support [any] federal funding of stem cell research and remain intellectually honest. He either believes the petri dish holds a baby or a bunch of cells; he cannot believe both. I am not arguing that intellectual honesty is a requirement for public office. Quite obviously, it is not."

She says, "Oddly enough, the presidency seems to have shrunk Bush and made it harder to see who he is and what he stands for." The writer concludes: "The mystery is what is taking him so long [to define himself]. Of course, for half the nation it's no mystery at all. It's why they didn't vote for him."


"The Washington Times" comes to Bush's defense on the issue. It publishes a commentary by free-lance writer Alan W. Dowd that defends the Bush position not from critics that the president restricts research too much but from right-to-life proponents who believe he is too permissive. Dowd argues that Bush's decision last week had little to do with science or intellectual honesty or, indeed, even with stem cell research itself. It was aimed, says the writer, at eventually reversing U.S. court rulings allowing abortions.

The commentator says: "Contrary to [the contentions of] some pro-life pessimists, President Bush's long-awaited stem cell decision doesn't threaten unborn life. Indeed, it does the very opposite." He writes, "The pessimists should consider the totality of the Bush record before they write him off."

Dowd says: "President Bush is trying to lead this country away from [the U.S. Supreme Court's] Roe vs. Wade dead-end. It's a journey that will be measured not in long strides, but in baby steps. If the pro-life pessimists refuse to understand that and instead walk away from Mr. Bush, they will do irreparable harm not only to his presidency, but to their own noble cause."


In "The Christian Science Monitor" today, science historian David Alan Grier writes in a commentary that political restraints on research are inevitable in a democracy. He says, "Scientists dismiss the machinations of Washington as 'mere politics,' activities that exist wholly apart from science."

Grier goes on, "In order to conduct stem cell research freely, the biologists will need to address the fact that the results of their research will unsettle traditional notions about the nature of human life." He concludes: "Restraints may not sit well with all scientists. They may think them a poor way to do research or argue that any restriction will fundamentally damage science. [But] such is the cost of doing science in a democracy."


Syndicated columnist Robert Scheer takes a contrary stance in the "Los Angeles Times." In actuality, he says, neither politics nor law will be able to force this scientific-exploration genie back into the bottle.

He writes, "Defense of life after conception but before birth is the heartbeat of the (U.S.) conservative revolution." He adds, "President Bush [seemed to] solve the [puzzle] in what's been cheered as a Solomon-like gesture of splitting the fetus."

But, Scheer contends, research opponents inevitably will grow old and begin themselves to worry about age-related diseases like Parkinson's, damaged livers, Alzheimer's, and recalcitrant hearts. Then, he asks, "You think they're going to lose sleep over some nothing [bunch of cells] swimming around in a petri dish that isn't even mentioned in the Old or New Testament?"


Another continuing issue drawing commentary on both sides of the Atlantic is the effect of anti-globalization protests. The "Financial Times" editorializes today that cutting short international meetings for fear of protests damages not only international institutions but also the very cause that the protestors claim to espouse. The British newspaper says: "It is a sorry commentary on the violence threatened by anti-globalization protesters and the inability of the police to contain them that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are proposing to cut their annual meetings next month to just two days."

The editorial says, "It is a mistake to back down in the face of the threat of violence." It adds: "The biggest losers from this decision, apart from the hoteliers of Washington, are likely to be those very developing countries on whose behalf the protesters claim to be campaigning. The annual meetings have traditionally been their best opportunity to get close access to the top financial officials of the developed world. A truncated meeting will restrict that."

The "Financial Times" says, "This decision is a defeat for the demonstrators, not a victory, just as it is a humiliation for the international institutions."


The "Frankfurter Rundschau's" Pitt von Bebenburg says in a commentary that Italian police are making victims out of protestors. The commentator writes: "Left-wing groups in Germany have again leveled serious accusations against the Italian police and judiciary. A number of anti-globalization demonstrators remain in prison on 'abstruse charges' and there are reports that several have been mistreated while in custody."

Von Bebenburg writes: "More than three weeks after the [G-7 plus Russia] summit in Genoa, over 40 anti-globalization protestors - including 16 from Germany -- remain imprisoned in Italy according to one left-wing group in Berlin, the Committee of Inquiry. Those who are in custody are believed to have been arrested while traveling home. Meanwhile, Committee of Inquiry's Beate Beckmann said yesterday that all of those who were arrested during the main demonstrations have now been released because it could not be proven that they had committed any crimes."

The commentator writes: "Those still in custody have been accused of being members of the Black Bloc, which the Italian authorities consider to be a criminal organization."