Advocacy (Stem Cell)

ADVOCACY FOR STEM cells, in its broadest sense, means people getting together to discuss how the scientific and clinical potential of the cells can be moved forward. Advocates for stem cell research are often associated with an interest in a specific disease for which stem cells may offer some hope. Many of the debates have centered on embryonic stem cell research where the ethical issues associated with the isolation of embryonic stem cells pitch religious groups against patient advocates. Because adult stem cell research does not involve the destruction of embryos there is little opposition to this research—although advocacy is always useful to push a field forward.

Debates on stem cell research have been carried by governmental agencies, politicians, interest groups, clergy, religious organizations, scientists, businesses, and individuals. These have included pro-life advocates, bioethicists, the papacy, patient advocate groups, and even U.S. President George W. Bush. The main areas of stem cell advocacy have been scientific, ethical, political, commercial, and personal. Issues generated in each of these areas have attracted different advocates.


Physicians hope to someday have new therapies that can mitigate or even cure diseases that today are incurable or at best managed—the new field of “regenerative medicine.” There are a large number of voluntary associations representing people with a variety of specific health issues (for example, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease), or are more general, such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). They have either touted stem cells as the ultimate cure, or expressed concerns over the dangers posed by as-of-yet unknown risks of the use of stem cells in treatments. For example, embryonic stem cells implanted in humans last a lifetime and may pose cancer risks or have other unintended consequences.

Discussions by advocates in the media about stem cells garners much public interest, and their concerns may gain public hearing before health organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration, which ultimately gives permission for all medicines, including those made from stem cells, to be allowed on the market for patient use.

Among those individuals who have advocated a broad approach to stem cell research were the late Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana Reeve and Michael J. Fox. After his spinal cord injury in an equestrian event, Christopher Reeve created the Christopher Reeve Foundation (CDRF). The foundation is a charity that promotes spinal cord injury research, which includes stem cell research. It is also an advocate of the election of “pro-science” presidents of the United States who will give unqualified support to stem cell research. Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s and started a foundation that supports the use of stem cells for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and funded many studies in the early part of 2000.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) is a coalition of over 100 organizations that lobby for stem cell research. The organizations in CAMR include colleges and universities, patient organizations, scientific societies, foundations, and other organizations. It lobbies Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and the president when a hearing can be obtained. CAMR is an advocate for embryonic as well as adult stem cell research. The Genetics Policy Institute (GPI) was founded by lawyer Bernard Seigal and spawned the powerful advocacy group known as the Pro-Cures Movement. These organizations are attempting to lobby the public to get interested in stem cell research through education and debate.


For every pro-stem cell advocacy group there are also many politicians or other groups that are against stem cell research for moral or religious reasons. Political debates have been conducted by politicians in the United States in both state governments and in the federal government. They have in many cases taken positions that are strongly against stem cell research. For example, President George W. Bush made a decision that to be eligible for funding for research sponsored by the government of the United States, only stem cell lines already existing that were derived from embryonic stem cells could be used and no new ones could be created that would involve destroying embryos. In the partisan atmosphere of contemporary American politics it would have been impossible for any decision he made not to be controversial.

Members of the Democratic Party are usually more supportive of embryonic stem cell research than are Republicans. Their position has therefore pressed for adoption of legislation that is open to federal research. In contrast, some conservative supporters of Republican politicians fear that support of stem cell research can become a slippery slope that leads to removing all opposition to abortion, and even to the destruction of small children for research purposes as Peter Singer, an ethicist at Princeton University, advocates. Fiscal issues affect members of Congress who support funding stem cell research whether embryonic or not. Fiscal realities and the hopes for regenerative medicine often clash.

Corporate supporters of embryonic stem cell research often have financial motivations as their central goal. Patents on stem cell research have been issued that have later created suits over the use of proprietary stem cell lines. This can often cloud the true balance of what is right or wrong about stem cell research, and goes beyond simple advocacy. Conflicts of interest quickly arise when money and patents are involved.

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