Stem cell bill covers ethical bases; pass it

“Thinking Right” by Jim Wooten
Published in The Atlanta Journal Constitution
March 20, 2007

At 41, state Sen. David J. Shafer of Duluth is already talking about how he wishes to be remembered when he is gone from this Earth.

The seriousness with which he approaches, and his diligence in lining up scientists, medical experts and ethicists to weigh in on what is often a controversial topic — stem cell research — is testimony to his belief that Senate Bill 148, the “Saving the Cure Act,” (www.savingthecure.com) will shape that legacy.

Shafer’s bill is subtitled “Keone’s Law” to honor a young Gwinnett man cured of sickle cell anemia by an experimental treatment involving an umbilical cord stem cell. The bill establishes a Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood Bank, or a network of banks, overseen by a 15-member state commission. Banks could be public or private. All state hospitals would be required by June 30, 2009, to inform pregnant women that they can donate postnatal tissue and fluid to the bank.

Shafer had essentially passed a bill last year, which is widely regarded as good public policy, but it fell victim to last-night logjam and a long, filibuster-like speech by state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), who was arguing an unrelated bill. It is on today’s Senate debate calendar. Impressive about Shafer’s push is the effort he has put into declaring and supporting the need to bank stem cells from “sources other than the human embryo and by processes which do not result in the destruction of human embryonic life.” That has been the controversy, of course, over embryonic stem cell research. Ethicists and others fear that ultimately the search for cures involving embryonic stem cells could involve the creation of human life for the purpose of destroying it. It’s a legitimate concern.

“Stem cell research in general has been hampered by the ethical controversy over embryonic stem cells which are presently derived in a process resulting in the destruction of the human embryo,” Shafer declares as a finding of fact. Yet, he goes on, “nondestructive stem cell research using stem cells from postnatal tissue and fluid has already resulted in treatments for anemia, leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell disease” and are in clinical trials “for multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and spinal cord injury.”

In a letter to Shafer, the director of the Project on Bioethics and American Democracy in Washington, Yuval Levin, writes that:

“For too long, the stem cell debate has been distorted by those who advocate exclusively for research in which human embryos are destroyed. They insist that any attempt to find ways to advance stem-cell science without harming nascent life — and, thereby, to serve both science and ethics at once — is misguided.”

But as they attempt to make that case, Levin writes, “the ideal role for government in the stem cell field … is to encourage productive avenues of research that avert the ethical dilemmas surrounding stem cell research, rather than exacerbate the disputes that arise around those dilemmas.”

Establishing the bank for amniotic fluid and postnatal tissue advances stem cell science in an ethical way that is “a model of balanced and constructive public policy,” Levin concludes. His project is part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

Jennifer C. Lahl, national director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, which has endorsed Shafer’s work, notes that “diseases like sickle cell anemia and many of the blood cancers like leukemia are being treated today using umbilical cord blood stem cells.”

She added: “What wonderful news for these children and their families!”

Physicians and researchers, asked to assess the claims made in the dozen findings of fact offer support. Dr. James Carroll, a professor and chief of the Child Neurology area of the Department of Neurology at the Children’s Medical Center of the Medical College of Georgia, notes that “there is a great need for banking umbilical cord stem cells.” He continued:

“While parents in higher socioeconomic groups can afford to ‘bank’ cells from children in their own families, and, thereby, make it more likely thier children will have a potential match, this option is not financially feasible for most. … The need for such a bank is even greater for minorities, because it is often more difficult to find a match for children in these groups.

“With 100,000 umbilical cords, we could match between 95 and 99 percent of the population,” said Shafer. Creating a bank or banks of that size from voluntary donations would likely take several years.

This really is a no-brainer. “It is unusual to come across an issue that clearly eclipses political party considerations,” said Dr. Carroll. “[Senate] Bill 148 is one of these issues.” Indeed it is.