There is an important development in the debate on federal support for stem cell research that has a North Carolina connection. Dr. Anthony Atala, head of Wake Forest's regenerative medicine institute, announced a breakthrough that suggests stem cells drawn from the amniotic fluid donated by pregnant women could be a substitute for many of the research purposes previously reserved for embryonic stem cells.
Until now the issue over stem cell research has centered almost exclusively on stem cells extracted from fertilized human eggs harvested from clinics that specialize in in vitro fertilization. The objection to the use of these fertilized eggs by both the religious right and the Catholic Church has been based upon their common belief that life begins at conception.
The breakthrough at Wake Forest is now cause for those who have moral objections to using embryonic stem cells to see this new alternative as an acceptable substitute. Unfortunately, it appears that while amniotic stem cells show promise, it's also true that they are not a perfect and identical substitute. Dr. Atala, interviewed last night on The News Hour, said that there would continue to be significant areas of research that would be better served by embryonic stem cells.
At least in the early going this caveat has been almost totally lost on those who categorically oppose the use of embryonic stem cells. This morning the media were filled with press releases from the White House, the Vatican, and conservatives of every stripe and situation celebrating this new development as the end of the debate. Of course it isn't the end of the debate, and most likely it will not affect the likelihood that the new Democratic Congress will pass a bill on Thursday approving federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
What's less clear is how influential this new development at Wake Forest will be in the effort to sustain President Bush's inevitable veto. For a few legislators on the fence, this promising scientific development may be all the reason they need to either oppose funding embryonic stem cell research, or at the very least be absent in their support for it.
In the last congress the same bill passed in the house on a vote of 238-194, but then the house failed to override a veto. For the house to have a veto proof majority in favor of the bill there would have to be 288 votes in favor. According to people in the know who count noses on the issue, the House is still 30 votes short of an override, but a strong push in the newly changed political environment could make it very close. With Sen. Corker replacing Sen. Frist, the Senate is still one vote short of a veto proof majority.