Secretary Thompson Troubled by Stem-Cell Ban
Laura Meckler,
Associated Press Writer

March 7, 2001; Washington, D.C. (AP) -- Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told a Senate committee Tuesday he is troubled by a law that bans federal financing of promising research using embryos. Thompson's comments suggested he may be at odds with the White House and its anti-abortion supporters over use of stem cells taken from embryos, a process that could lead to cures for Alzheimer's, diabetes, and other diseases. Immediately after the hearing, however, Thompson's spokesman told reporters that the secretary meant to deliver precisely the opposite message. The exchange left unclear what Thompson will ultimately recommend and over his personal views on stem cells research.

Stem cells are building blocks for all human tissue, and scientists say research with them could lead to revolutionary therapies. The most useful cells are derived from embryos discarded at fertility clinics, and abortion opponents say it is wrong to use them for research.

Congress has barred Federal money for research that destroys embryos, but the Clinton Administration concluded that the National Institutes of Health could pay for research using cells that had been extracted with private money. Applications are due next week. The Bush administration remains undecided whether to allow continued funding, although President Bush has suggested that he opposes it. Last week, Thompson said the matter is under review but said in the meantime, applications should be submitted and would be considered and funded if it is legal to do so.

The White House, displeased with those comments, told Thompson he should not move in front of the President on the issue. "I've learned the hard way already," Thompson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an interview about his new job. "You can't be quite as direct as I was as Governor."

At a Senate Budget Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Gordon Smith, (R-Oregon), told Thompson he hopes the administration will allow the research to move ahead. "We ought to err on the side of helping people with these hideous diseases," Smith said, noting that he opposes abortion. "Stem cells may be one of the answers." Thompson responded that he has always been a strong supporter of medical research, but the law may prohibit using federal money in this case.

"I am troubled, as you probably are, by the law, and I know Congress is trying to change the law. But there is a law on the books. It is troublesome,' he told Smith. After the hearing, Thompson's spokesman, Tony Jewell, told reporters that the secretary meant to say that he was troubled by the Clinton administration's interpretation of the law. Later, Jewell said he checked with Thompson and confirmed this. Jewell allowed that being troubled by the law and being troubled by the Clinton administration's interpretation of the law suggest opposite positions.

Still, it is possible that Thompson believes the law was wrong but also believes that the Clinton administration was out of bounds in its interpretation. Jewell would not say what Thompson thinks of the law itself. As governor of Wisconsin, Thompson praised local researchers for groundbreaking stem cell research they had done.

Legislation backed by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would explicitly allow this research to go forward. It has not advanced in Congress so far.


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