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Should the Federal Government Fund Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

Aired July 19, 2001 - 19:30   ET



SEN. BILL FRIST (R), TENNESSEE: We can use that tissue to the benefit of hundreds of others, thousands of others, maybe millions of others.


TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: The Senate's only doctor says yes.


SEN. SAM BROWNBACK, (R) KANSAS: Or is there an alternative here: beautiful children?


CARLSON: An anti-abortion lawmaker says no.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will make an announcement in due course when I'm ready, and it doesn't matter who's on what side as far as I'm concerned.


CARLSON: While the president has yet to make up his mind. Tonight: the divisive debate over embryonic stem cell research.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left Bill Press. On the right, Tucker Carlson. In the CROSSFIRE: Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon and Republican Congressman Chris Smith from New Jersey.

CARLSON: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE. No matter which side you're on, it's a matter of life and death: Embryonic stem cell research. Supporters say it may offer promising new treatments for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Critics call it the taking of human life. Should the government fund it? President Bush says he hasn't decided.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BUSH: I'm going to take my time because I want to hear all sides. I want to fully understand the opportunities and to fully think through the dilemmas.


CARLSON: Pressure is building for a decision. The president says he won't be swayed by political considerations. But there are many. A number of high-profile Republicans have recently come out in favor of the support. Several of them are anti-abortion, including Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is the Senate's only physician. And next week, President Bush meets with the pope, who is the spiritual leader of millions of Catholic voters and a vocal opponent of embryonic stem cell research. What should Bush do? What can he do? And what will he do -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congressman Smith, let me ask you first, former first lady Nancy Reagan has come out in support of stem-cell research because she says it might help find a cure for the Alzheimer's disease which is killing President Reagan. If he could speak today don't you think he would also support stem-cell research?

REP. CHRIS SMITH (R), NEW JERSEY: Bill, I support adult stem- cell research and very vigorously. I have introduced legislation to provide $30 million and establish an adult stem-cell bank. I'm chairman of the Alzheimer's Caucus. I am chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee with a huge medical and research budget. I want to find cures to these debilitating and disastrous diseases, but we don't do it with unethical stem cells that are derived by killing human embryos and by human embryo farming.

We learned this week that there is an explosion of potential for adopting what was formerly frozen embryos. We had three children who were thawed and then adopted making it clear that there is no such thing as spare embryo or an excess embryo. Those tiny human beings can be adopted, and we had three of them at our hearing this week. So I think that shatters the myth that there is this excess of human beings that could be used for experimentation.

I believe in adult stem-cell research. It holds tremendous promise, it doesn't have the problem of rejection, which is a major issue, you know when you take embryonic stem cells you run that risk.

CARLSON: Senator a new poll out shows something that is not surprising. Most Americans think it immoral to experiment on human embryos. And of course it is going on in a widespread way in the private sector. Why the federal funding? Why force people who find it immoral to pay for it?

SEN. GORDON SMITH (R), OREGON: Well, I think because people want cures to disease. I think people do want to be pro-life, and part of being pro-life is caring for the living as well as the unborn, and it really comes down to a difference of belief as to when life begins. I personally believe life begins in a mother's womb not in a petri dish. In my opinion, or actually that of science, probably nearly half of fertilized eggs never are implanted in the mother's womb. I don't believe anybody is dying there. And I believe that as the puritans call it the quickening occurs shortly after a fertilized egg is implanted in a mother's womb.

PRESS: Congressman Smith, back to you because you were talking about adult stem-cell research. Of course the debate is over embryonic stem cell research. I don't usually take my lead, Congressman, from "The Wall Street Journal," but I find myself doing so today.

In an editorial piece today on the editorial page by Laura Landreau who is senior editor for "The Wall Street Journal," she talks about her experience, she was diagnosed with a fatal blood cancer. She went to an in-vitro fertilization lab, they were able to take some of her eggs, and they were fertilized and they were frozen.

Later she got a divorce, and she was given some options, to destroy those eggs, or there was one box to check, released for approved research. She said she checked that box without hesitation, and here is what she said why. Quote, "It is true that they will never create a life, but they may help save one. In approaching the question of stem-cell research that is a fact we should not forget." Why would you deny her that option, Congressman?

C. SMITH: Frankly there should be a third box now, and that is these embryos can be adopted. Human embryo farming and the idea that there is a whole class of human beings that could be used for experimentation, and frankly they are not our stem cells to take. Whereas adult stem cells, and stem cells that are derived from the umbilical cord, cord blood, which is very rich with capabilities to perhaps cure many diseases, there is an ethical way of doing research and there is an unethical way.

And frankly, Senator, with all due respect, I happen to believe and I think science backs this us up to the hilt, that human life actually begins at fertilization. It is from that moment on that nothing new is ever added, except nutrition, growth, maturity, life is a continuum, and to say arbitrarily it begins at the moment of implantation, or birth, or at five years old, or old age or any other time is an arbitrary decision.

And seems to me that we need to say we want to go full scale ahead with adult stem-cell research. When Carters's bio advisory gave their recommendations, amazingly, they said, that if there is an alternative, then this other adult human embryo embryonic stem cell kind of falls by the side. There is now. Science has galloped past where we were just a year ago with adult stem cell.

PRESS: Congressman, if I may in all due respect, I think you are galloping past the science. The National Institute of Health put out a report yesterday which repudiated just what you said.

C. SMITH: Not at all, I report...

PRESS: May I finish my question before you answer? It said that there is tremendous promise in stem-cell research, but it said especially in research involving embryonic stem cells because it says they are more plentiful, they are easier to extract, and because there in such infancy they can develop into more types of cells, and therefore, much more promising research.

Now, if I have to choose, Congressman, between National Institute of Health, and you as to where science goes, hey, no-brainer.

C. SMITH: The NIH in all candor also said in that report, that there is tremendous possibility for adult stem cell which was not the case a year ago or a year and a half ago.

PRESS: But not as much.

C. SMITH: People can disagree. We had scientists -- not congressmen, but scientists -- who testified just to the contrary just the other day, in the House committee, who put their credentials on the line in saying that there are other ethical ways of doing stem- cell research without killing embryos, and that they hold great promise.

G. SMITH: I'm for all the things Chris just said. I believe in adult stem-cell research and I believe there ought to be the additional box for adoption. But I'll tell you, if you divide a cell outside of a womb and you put it in a petri dish and leave it there 100 years it will still be a divided cell in a petri dish. It will never come into being a human being until you plant it into a woman. In my opinion that is where life begins.

CARLSON: You have said that you agree with what the 17th century Puritan definition when life begins, the quickening. A lot of people don't, though. A lot of scientists don't and a lot of people, including some scientists, believe that it is immoral to kill these embryos and do research on them.

I want you to listen to Mark Souder, congressman from Indiana. I think has a pretty sensible middle ground here -- Congressman Souder.


REP. MARK SOUDER (R), INDIANA: Before U.S. government condones with federal funding research, that results in the destruction of living human embryos we have a moral obligation to explore and exhaust every available ethical alternative. We are fortunate such that such alternatives are plentiful and have already yielded great successes.


CARLSON: That is right. I mean people pretend as if the only opportunities are with embryonic stem cells but of course that is not true, is it?

G. SMITH: No, I would not foreclose these other options. I would pursue them vigorously and I would do them with federal funding, I just wouldn't limit this one at this point, because I think that it might have the potential to cure dreaded things for the living such as Parkinson's and ALS and forms of cancer. I just think that we are short-sighted if we begin shutting it down and frankly if you don't do it publicly, you don't do it transparently, you don't do it in a way that has some of the boundaries that we ought to establish publicly.

CARLSON: But, I think you have admitted that adult stem cells also have the potential to cure the diseases you just listed, just as embryonic stem cells may and may not.

G. SMITH: And they may not.

CARLSON: Absolutely right, so as long as there's this moral debate, as long as the majority of the adult population believes it is immoral to kill these embryos, why do it until we have exhausted the other possibilities?

G. SMITH: I just don't believe that until you have a divided cell and in a woman's womb you will ever have anything develop into a human life that the law will recognize.

PRESS: Go ahead, Congressman.

C. SMITH: What has been shattered is this myth that somehow these are not human beings. Three of those children were thawed and were placed for adoption. You know, there is no such thing as a spare embryo, and if we talk about creating brand new lives for the purposes of human experimentation and embryo farming -- you know, we need to look at those -- I think we crossed even another line.

We are talking about cryogenic tanks, where -- which we should now see as frozen orphanages, where there is a great potential for those tens of thousands of families who would like to build a family and adopt, can now adopt one of these children.

PRESS: Congressman, I hear the theory, OK? And it sounds fine, but I also would like you to focus on the reality. There is some 100,000 to 200,000 -- nobody knows how many out there -- in vitro fertilization clinics. They are not going to get adopted! They are going to get thrown away or they are going to get kept in some freezer somewhere, and I want to -- again, I don't usually take my lead from somebody like Senator Orrin Hatch, but I will today, and I salute him, and I'd like you to listen to him and respond, please. Here is Senator Orrin Hatch talking about the reality.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: The reality today is that each year, thousands of embryos are routinely destroyed. Why shouldn't these embryos slated for destruction be used for the good of mankind?


C. SMITH: I'm glad you brought that up.

PRESS: Why not? C. SMITH: They are not slated for destruction if we change what they can be slated for. That is a decision that is being made each and every day, and I think so many of the genetic parents, if they knew that there was an adoption option, they would slate them for adoption and life and nurturing, rather than destruction.

And again, I can't stress enough, there is a viable, very, very hopeful alternative in adult and other non embryonic stem cells. That is -- that's where, you know, the great progress is being made.

PRESS: Congressman, I hate to use a word that may be anathema to you, but I would like to use the word "choice," because it sounds to me like in those boxes, as Senator Smith was talking about earlier, you want to just take one of those boxes away.

Again, you know, I don't have one of these diseases, thank God for that. I had my very first boss in politics, a Republican, die of Parkinson's disease. My father-in-law, Tom Terry, whom I loved very much, died of ALS last year. We -- there have been some voices on the Hill, and we heard one the other day. I would like you to listen to a woman by the name of Shelbie Oppenheimer, who is a victim of ALS disease. This is a choice that she speaks about. Please respond -- let's listen to her first.


SHELBIE OPPENHEIMER, LOU GEHRIG'S DISEASE VICTIM: You have the choice to be pro-life for an unimplanted frozen embryo that will be discarded, or pro-life for me. Members of Congress and President Bush, I am asking you to choose me.


PRESS: How can you deny that, congressman?

C. SMITH: I'm totally pro-life for her. And I vote and do everything I can every year to increase the amount of money the NIH -- as I said, I'm chairman of the Alzheimer's Caucus, co-chairman, the Republican chairman, and I work very hard to increase the amount of money to end these dreaded diseases.

Having said that, I lost my mother to brain cancer, my father to stomach cancer, my cousin has type I diabetes! I know disease! My wife has pernicious anemia, although that doesn't rise to the level certainly of some of these other issues. But I have got to tell you, we all live with terrible debilitating diseases. There is an ethical and hopefully a very hopeful way of solving it, but again, killing human embryos, taking a generation of human lives and turning them into guinea pigs to take their stem cells, when there is an ethical alternative that has shown itself.

You know, you don't have the problem and many of these scientists are beginning to focus on this, of rejection, when it is adult stem cells -- embryonic has have a very, very severe problem with rejection, because -- and there are a lot of other problems in terms of the way they multiply, and the fact that they could become tumorous. All of those things are being brought out more and more. Embryonic is not going to be the silver bullet. It is the hyperbole, would say it is -- adult stem cell, I would respectfully submit...

PRESS: Senator, before we take a break, you were...

G. SMITH: I just wouldn't take the silver bullet out of the chamber. I think we may be able to find that stem cells can do remarkable things. And frankly, with permission of my own children -- I tell you, I believe I'm pro-life, my three kids are all adopted, and so I think I'm doing my part for life.

I believe in that third box that Chris is talking about. I'm also a Udall. My mother's name is Jessica Udall. I watched, as a child, my grandmother Udall die of Parkinson's. We all watched my cousin Morris who died literally died publicly of Parkinson's. A couple of months ago, I buried my uncle Addison Udall of Parkinson's. I've got a brother-in-law afflicted with Parkinson's, so to me pro- life is about helping the living and the unborn, and I think I'm trying to do both here, and I think -- I believe there are many theological opinions as to when life begins, and we're trying to solve many human tragedies, so I don't think we should focus on the most -- on just one theological thing.

PRESS: Senator, congressman, please hold it right there, we are going to take a break. When we come back, President Bush has yet to publicly tell us where he's going to come down on this issue. Will he continue to oppose federal funding of stem cell research, or is he about to change his mind? We'll be right back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Even though he opposed federal funding for stem cell research as a candidate, President Bush has taken no stand on the issue yet in the White House. He says he's going to take his time and listen to all sides. Is he really open- minded? Will he dare oppose the most conservative elements of his party, including Karl Rove, his top political adviser?

Debating the politics and policy of stem cell research tonight with two Republicans, and two conservatives: Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon -- Tucker.

CARLSON: Senator, as you know, this is turning into potentially a political problem for your president, our president, President Bush, because if he goes against the ban on embryonic stem cell research, he will be of course breaking a campaign pledge. You are familiar with the pledge during the campaign, he said in a letter to the Culture of Life Foundation: "I oppose federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying human embryos."

Now, you were a Bush supporter, and now, however, you are putting pressure on him to reverse himself and go back on a campaign pledge. Not very helpful for a Republican to be doing that to his president, is it?

G. SMITH: I know. Look, my president, our president, doesn't have a lot of upside in this. He is going to disappoint people no matter what, so I hope he makes a decision that is based upon his conscience and on the information that he has received to make an informed decision.

At the end of the day, though, I believe -- I hope he will make a decision that says yes, I'm conservative, but I will prove I'm compassionate and he'll help the living. And I think you can do this within the bounds of being pro-life. And I hope he will show that kind of concern.

CARLSON: Then I wonder why you didn't tell him that before the election. I mean, why -- don't you think -- now that you have staked out this position you had had an obligation during the campaign to explain your position to him?

G. SMITH: Yeah, I -- but, you know, when you are elected, you are not elected to be a robot. And sometimes, when you come to govern, you find, while campaigning is in shades of black and white, sometimes governing is in shades of gray. And frankly, this is an area where there are good and honorable people on both sides, and is a tough difficult issue, so I'm glad to see him wrestling with it, that everything isn't just easy and ideological, that there are some shades of gray that cause him to pause, and think anew.

PRESS: Congressman Smith, you and I may be able to agree on something here, because I don't believe there are any shades of gray at all in the president's mind. I think he's made up his mind; he's just playing games with us, he's pretending to be open-minded, until goes over there and meets with the pope, and comes home and says to American Catholics, there you go, I listened to the pope, I'm making a decision, isn't that right, Congressman? It's all baloney!

C. SMITH: I think the president has the opportunity, now with this even more information, then had before, to do the right thing about ethical stem-cell research. I am unabashedly, totally committed to stem-cell research; it offers great promise, and I think the president feels the same way, but embryonic stem cell research, when those embryos can be adopted, when adult stem cell research has become, really, the talk of the town, a day doesn't go by where there isn't a breakthrough in adult stem-cell research.

Even fat cells have shown great promise to provide stem cells for great manipulation and can be used for regenerative purposes, so, I think the president will do the right thing. He has made a promise, he will keep it, and he's backed by science and I do believe by ethics.

PRESS: Well, the question is I think as Senator Smith indicated, now that he is in the White House, is he going to, you know, go beyond and -- willing to look beyond where he was as a candidate and maybe show some independence? He couldn't as a candidate. Here is another one of the senator's colleagues, Senator Susan Collins of Maine has said about the president looking at this decision.

She is quoted in "The New York Times" last Saturday, "It's an opportunity for him, having fully established his conservative credentials, to establish compassionate credentials."

I mean, wouldn't it really be a plus for him to -- let's say, support the Frist compromise? Isn't that where the president ought to end up?

C. SMITH: Well, I think compassion means inclusion, and nobody gets left behind, and that includes embryos, especially those embryos that could be adopted. When we go down the slippery slope of human experimentation, when certain individuals are designated, go down this line, where you will be experimented on, we have crossed a serious line in terms of experimentation. That is when people become guinea pigs.

And I think this president will err if he is to err on the side of compassion, justice, and inclusion. Human rights is all about who is going to be left out.

CARLSON: Senator Smith, will the president land on that side?

G. SMITH: I hope he lands on the side of furthering hope and healing and health, and I think that is compassionate conservatism, and I think you can be pro-life and believe that life begins in a woman's womb, and not in a scientist's laboratory. That is what I believe, and I will hold my pro-life credentials up proudly.

PRESS: Can I ask -- what about that slippery slope?

G. SMITH: I believe that the slope stops at the mother's womb, frankly. If you are going to start manufacturing parts at that sacred point then I would say you must not do that, because, look, in the fallopian tubes, like many scientists tell me, half the egg is just are fertilized and they are sloughed off. I don't believe that they are being killed. I just -- I just think there is a point at which there is a quickening.

CARLSON: Senator Smith, Congressman Smith, thank you both very much.

G. SMITH: Thank you, Chris.

CARLSON: The debate is still embryonic; we will return for our closing comments, Bill Press and I -- it will be fully grown. We'll be right back.


PRESS: Tucker, it's a tough issue, with people on both sides of it. I just have one thing to say: if anybody has any doubts, I recommend reading this book called, "Saving Millie" by Morton Kondracke. It's not only the story of his life with Millie, who has serious Parkinson's disease. I think it's the boldest and strongest statement why you have to have stem cell funding.

CARLSON: And the best part of the book, the parts about their marriage, and what a wonderful woman she is, the idea, however, that embryonic stem-cell research offers the only hope for curing this disease as ridiculous, and I'm just struck by how people pretend the embryo doesn't grow into a child, which it does! And I think the debate has to be -- to take place with that in mind.

PRESS: If it's locked in a refrigerator in a lab, it doesn't grow into a child and never will.

CARLSON: That is exactly right! Which is why it ought not to be.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press; good night for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for the next edition of CROSSFIRE.