Stem Cell Switcharoo

Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) now says he won't hurry to lift the controversial ban on federal funding of human embryo research. In an attempt to accelerate promising studies of human stem cells, Specter's staff had drafted a bill to end the legal taboo against using embryo tissue from private fertility clinics in taxpayer-funded labs. It would have given these labs direct access to "spare" frozen embryos, which are the source of one type of stem cell.

But at a 26 January hearing, Specter suggested he will shelve the bill now that the Department of Health and Human Services, parent of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has announced that stem cell research doesn't violate the ban (ScienceNOW, 19 January). Scientists hope this new interpretation will enable them to work with privately developed cells, which they aim to coax to grow into an array of transplantable tissues.

Curiously, Specter's cautious approach--which could prevent a contentious debate over the ban--is welcomed by an odd couple: the U.S. Catholic Church and members of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). The clerics like the status quo because it continues the funding ban, which has been attached as a "rider" for several years in succession to NIH appropriation bills. ASRM members favor it because the current rider expires in September. There is a chance, at least, that Congress will decide not to renew the ban. From their point of view, no law would be better than an "improved" law.