5 Questions: Harkin on the stem cell bill

Sen. Tom Harkin

Last week the House of Representatives passed a measure that would lift some federal restrictions on stem cell research. With the bill now in the Senate, Medical Center Report turned to one of its sponsors, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), to gauge its prospects.

1. Assume that this bill is enacted into law. What would that mean?

Harkin: The main thing this bill does is lift the administration's totally arbitrary deadline of Aug. 9, 2001, at 9 p.m., for federally funded research on stem cell lines. I've never understood why it's supposedly morally acceptable to use stem cell lines created at 8:59 p.m. on Aug. 9, but it's not okay to use stem cell lines created at 9:01 p.m.

This bill says that as long as you follow strict ethical guidelines, federally funded scientists can study any stem cell lines they want, regardless of the date they were derived. This means, for example, they'll finally be able to get federal grants to study stem cell lines that weren't grown on mouse feeder cells—lines that could actually be used in human treatments.

2. Assume the opposite—that the policy restricting embryonic stem cell work stays in place for the next decade. What would that mean?

Harkin: It's very simple: our country will become irrelevant in one of the most promising areas of research in modern times. Other countries are moving full speed ahead. Look what the South Koreans are accomplishing. If we don't pass this legislation, we're going to be on the sidelines again and again. And you can bet we'll pay a huge price economically.

3. What are the bill's prospects in the Senate?

Harkin: There's no question that if the Senate votes on this bill, we'll pass it. The question is, "Will Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) let us have a vote? " I'm hopeful that he will. The reason is that we have strong bipartisan support, even from pro-life senators like Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). Then we've got to worry about amendments from opponents like Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). They probably will try to confuse things by getting into cloning and chimeras and a whole bunch of other issues that don't have anything to do with this bill.

4. Were you surprised to see the House take up and pass this measure?

Harkin: I never thought I'd say, "Thank goodness for that great stem cell bill the House just sent us." But it just goes to show, the more people learn about stem cell research, the more they support it. They understand that instead of throwing away hundreds of thousands of embryos that are just sitting in storage and will never be implanted in a woman, we should use them to save lives.

5. The president has said he will veto the measure if it comes before him. What's the likelihood of Congress overriding his veto?

Harkin: I'll be honest. I don't think we ever get to 290 in the House [the number to override a veto]. In the Senate, 67 votes is doable. But not in the House. The key will be to help the president find a way to sign this bill without looking like he's selling out the right wing. Our bill doesn't require the creation of new embryos, and no federal funding would be used to derive stem cell lines. Those could be important in convincing the president to sign the bill.