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Public and private research on human stem cells derived from all sources―embryonic, fetal, and adult―should be encouraged in order to support and contribute to the rapidly advancing and changing scientific understanding of the potential of human stem cells from these various sources. Embryonic stem cells (ES cells) derived from early embryos and embryonic germ cells (EG cells) have particular promise for a wide range of therapeutic applications because they are capable of giving rise to virtually any cell type. Research on these primordial cells will also provide a unique opportunity to study human cell biology. Adult stem cells, obtained from mature tissue, differentiate into a narrower range of cell types. As a result, many cells of medical interest cannot currently be obtained from adult-derived stem cells. It is also less feasible to develop large-scale cultures from adult stem cells. Nevertheless, because the study of human stem cells is at an early stage of development, it is difficult to predict outcomes and findings at this point in time. As more research takes place, the full developmental potential of different kinds of stem cells will become better understood.

To realize the potential health benefits of stem cell technology will require a large and sustained investment in research. The federal government is the only realistic source for such an infusion of funds. For those who are challenged daily by serious diseases that could in the future be relieved by therapies gained through stem cell research, public funding holds the greatest promise for sooner rather than later research results that can be transferred from the bench to the bedside. Without the stimulus of public funding, new treatments could be substantially delayed.

The commitment of federal funds also offers a basis for public review, approval, and monitoring through well established over-sight mechanisms that will promote the public’s interest in ensuring that stem cell research is conducted in a way that is both scientifically rigorous and ethically proper. Additionally, public funding can contribute to sound social policy by increasing the probability that the results of stem cell research will reflect broad social priorities that are unlikely to inform research in the private sector.

A substantial portion of the U.S. population, including many children, is excluded from the U.S. health care system. Public funding offers the best hope of fostering public consideration of the common good, rather than marketplace concerns, and of expanding access to the fruits of stem cell research for large numbers of Americans.

Historically, the availability of shared, canonical genetic stocks has been indispensable for the advancement of research in the life sciences. Stem cell research is more likely to advance if such canonical genetic stocks of ES cells are made available to the scientific community. Public funding under the auspices of federal agencies is the only effective means for ensuring equal access by scientists to standardized ES cell lines.

There are segments of American society that disagree on moral grounds with using public monies to support certain types of stem cell research. Faced with such disagreements, it is important to recall that public policy in a pluralistic democracy cannot hope to incorporate all of the viewpoints and ethical priorities of the many ethical and religious perspectives that compose the body politic. The aim of public policy is more limited: to protect and promote the basic values essential to civic order and the pursuit of widely different individual conceptions of the good. An appreciation of these limits is not just a secular insight; it is deeply rooted in the religious traditions that have formed American culture, most of which recognize that not all their ethical beliefs, however important, require legal embodiment.

In the context of stem cell research, this understanding of the limits of public policy appears to lead to four practical conclusions. One is neutrality with regard to disputed questions of moral status and a permission for individuals, whether they are researchers or embryo or fetal tissue donors, to act in conformity to their own conscientious moral views on these matters. A second is the commitment to public involvement in research support when this research is reasonably related to the promotion and protection of public health. A third is respect for opposing views, especially those based on deeply held religious grounds, to the extent that this is consistent with the protection and promotion of public health and safety. A fourth is to make support available for research into alternative sources and/or methods for the derivation of stem cells and into further initiatives on adult stem cells.

Taken together, these four considerations do not appear to rule out public funding for research involving the use of stem cell lines derived from embryos and aborted fetuses. Support for this conclusion exists in the area of fetal tissue research, which has been funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1993. Although many Americans oppose abortion, the possible future health benefits of fetal tissue research, some of which are only now beginning to be substantiated, were widely taken as a reason for proceeding with public support of this research.The possible future benefits of fetal tissue research underlay the recommendations of the majority in the Report of the Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Panel (1988). At the same time, strenuous efforts were made in crafting public policy and regulations governing this area to avoid or minimize public involvement in what some citizens regard as morally unacceptable decisions. The regulations designed to separate the abortion decision from the decision to donate tissue for research purposes, the disincentives to commercialization of fetal tissue, and the separation of funded researchers from involvement in the performance of abortions all reflect respect for the concerns and values of those opposing abortion.

Public funding should be provided for embryonic stem cell and embryonic germ cell research, but not at this time for activities involved in the isolation of embryonic stem cells. Although the derivation of stem cells can be carried out in an ethical manner, there is enough objection to the process of deriving stem cells to consider recommending against its public funding.

Further, for the foreseeable future there will be sufficient material available for research isolated by researchers without using public funding.The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) is the patent and license agent for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. WARF has assumed responsibility for patenting, licensing, and distribution of human... This approach should provide adequate public funding for researchers to move expeditiously toward discoveries that will lead to alleviating the suffering caused by human disease.

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