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Published: Tuesday, 5/24/2005

Stem cell advocates, foes face off

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - Emotional debate begins today in the House on whether President Bush's 2001 curbs on embryonic stem cell research should be lifted, with some lawmakers insisting new life could be destroyed and others convinced potential cures for such diseases as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's are at stake.

If a vote occurs today as scheduled, supporters of more research say they are likely to win.

If they do, the issue still has to be voted on in the Senate, but it is expected to have bipartisan support there. If a bill permitting wider avenues of stem cell research passes both houses, Mr. Bush said last week he would veto it. It would be his first veto.

Embryonic stem cells come from the inner cell mass of a human embryo and have the potential to develop into nearly all tissues of the body.

In August of 2001, Mr. Bush decided to permit federal funding on currently existing embryonic stem cell lines but not new ones. Scientists complained that this impeded promising research into cures for diseases that affect millions.

Abortion-rights opponents, however, said the President was right not to permit new cell lines from being developed because they see embryos as potential human beings.

Also, some have raised the possibility that widespread stem cell research could lead to human cloning.

The intensity of today's debate has been escalated because South Korean scientists last week announced they have cloned human cells to grow embryonic stem cells for research. Many scientists say only federal funding will enable U.S. scientists to catch up, although the Starr Foundation yesterday said it will give $50 million for stem cell research over three years to three New York medical institutions.

Three of the most famous advocates of new lines of stem cell research have been former first lady Nancy Reagan, whose husband had Alzheimer's disease; paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, whose widow Dana has taken up his cause for more stem cell research after he died last year as a result of spinal cord injuries, and actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease.

Today on Capitol Hill the opposing argument will be made by parents whose children were born from "adopted" embryos and who are expected to plead that new research on human embryos is immoral because it destroys them.

The bipartisan bill House members are expected to vote on is sponsored by Reps. Mike Castle (R., Del.) and Diana DeGette (D., Colo.). They say their bill would not permit abuses because embryos could not be bought or sold.

Their bill would permit federal funding on embryos that are already slated for destruction, they say.

A competing bill, all but openly supported by the White House, has been crafted by Reps. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) and Artur Davis (D., Ala.) to provide federal funding for stem cell research into cures for disease using blood from umbilical cords collected in a national databank.

The Association for the Advancement of Science says that proposal does not go far enough to provide what scientists need, but Republican leaders siding with Mr. Bush say it, too, should be voted on today.

Contact Ann McFeatters at:

amcfeatters@nationalpress.com

or 202-662-7071.



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