After the veto: 'And yet she moves'

In the early 1600s, inspired astronomer Galileo questioned conventional wisdom when he declared that Earth moved around the sun, but the Roman Inquisition labeled his theories heresy and put him on trial.

At the astronomer’s trial in 1633, after the Inquisition forced him to recant his theory, Galileo supposedly said under his breath, “And yet she moves.”

Stem-cell research promises to expand human knowledge of the body the way Galileo’s vision expanded human knowledge of the universe. I have worked with leading scientists in my 30-year Senate career. Few, if any, issues have created the genuine sense of excitement among the scientific community as have the current opportunities in stem-cell research.

By vetoing H.R. 810 this week, the president tried to build a roadblock to the future of stem-cell research. But it’s really only a speed bump. The hope offered by stem-cell research is too great to ignore.

I understand that many have ethical and moral reservations about stem-cell research. For the same reason that many in America describe themselves as adamantly pro-life, some object to the use of an embryo for research.

As a pro-life senator myself, I have done considerable soul-searching in coming to my conclusion about stem cells. But for the same reason I describe myself as pro-life, I embrace research on embryonic stem cells.

I believe that being pro-life involves helping the living. Stem-cell research is pro-life and pro-family; it enhances, not diminishes, human life. I do not question that an embryo is a living cell, but I do not believe that a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic freezer constitutes human life.

The president’s argument that using spare in vitro fertilization embryos for research destroys life is essentially a paper tiger — the spare embryos are slated for destruction anyway. I find it hard to understand how the president is comfortable with allowing 7,000 to 20,000 of these spare embryos to be discarded each year as waste yet considers it murder to use these same embryos to benefit mankind.

In fairness, the president deserves a lot of credit here, since he was the first president to allow federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. That was a big step. But his policy, which was intended to promote this research to the fullest, must be improved. The number of embryonic-stem-cell lines actually available and functional are only a small fraction of what President Bush originally intended. To fulfill his vision, an expansion of embryonic stem cells available for research must be increased.

Stem-cell research promises no immediate magic medical bullets. Cures are not around the corner. If we start a vigorous program of federally funded stem-cell research, we will not measure progress in hours and days. It will take years, perhaps 10 or 20 years, before American patients are administered a new class of products and treatments derived from stem cell research.

When stem-cell research is successful, many currently untreatable diseases and conditions may go the way of smallpox and polio. Stem-cell research promises treatments or cures for afflictions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer, Alzheimer’s and many others.

What family in America does not include someone afflicted with a disease on this list? Experts believe that upward of 100 million Americans — and hundreds of millions of others around the world — may one day benefit from stem-cell research.

But the sooner we start, the faster we will get there.

Opponents of stem-cell research are on the wrong side of history. In 1992, Pope John Paul II officially apologized for the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo. At some point in the future, when the fruits of stem-cell research bless millions, I imagine critics of this breathtaking technology will offer a similar apology.

But victims of afflictions like spinal cord injuries and their families cannot wait 360 years for the country to move ahead with this. We need to get these tools into scientists’ hands as quickly as possible.

Eventually we will have access to this critical branch of science for curing disease and improving life. Even if opponents block access to stem cells for a while, this week’s vote is an important way of telling them, “And yet she moves.”

Hatch is a member of the health, judiciary and finance panels.