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Embryonic Stem Cell Research – What Happens Next? | Valerie Schmalz | August 2, 2005

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Popular adult stem legislation could remain in limbo through the end of this year, held hostage to U.S. Senate conflicts over embryonic stem cell research and human cloning that reflect an acrimonious national debate.

The U.S. Senate adjourned for its August recess without voting on a set of six bills covering cloning, adult, and embryonic stem cell research. When it returns on September 6, U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge John Roberts will take center stage. Thus, with many in the Senate wishing the whole stem cell issue will go away, there’s a chance there will not be a vote at all this year. (See Cloning and Stem Cell Bills Set To Be Up For Senate Debate", IgnatiusInsight.com, July 16, 2005.)

Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist’s announcement this past Friday that he would support a House bill H.R.810 expanding embryonic stem cell research to use "left over" in-vitro fertilization embryos damaged the pro-life cause, although the extent of the damage is hard to estimate. However, some Senate aides have said that Frist’s decision does not change the Senate playing field much, perhaps adding another couple of votes but not creating a veto-proof majority. President George Bush has promised to veto the bill.

"Embryonic stem-cell research should be encouraged and supported," Frist said on the Senate floor Friday. However, "it should advance in a manner that affords all human life dignity and respect, the same dignity and respect we bring to the table as we work with children and adults to advance the frontiers of medicine and health."

Leading ESC and human cloning opponent Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, immediately responded. "While Senator Frist acknowledged that human embryos are nascent human life," Brownback stated, "he never addressed the most important question: how does one treat human life? Is the young human embryo a person or a piece of property? It is one or the other." Sen. Rick Santorum, a member of the Republican leadership who had been working with Frist to bring the package of six stem cell bills to the Senate floor for a vote, told reporters on Friday he was "disappointed in Sen. Frist’s change in position."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA, expressed hope that Frist’s public change of heart on the bill means Frist will bring H.R. 810 to the Senate floor for a vote. Specter said it might even soften President Bush’s opposition. However, Frist said he had "ethical" problems with the bill’s language and would require changes.

On Friday, Brownback urged Frist to schedule a vote: "The American public deserves to have a thorough debate on this subject in the Senate. We must address the legal status of the young human embryo."

H.R. 810 would significantly loosen federal funding restrictions adopted by President Bush in 2001 by allowing federal funding for research using IVF embryos. There are an estimated 400,000 frozen embryos held by fertility clinics. Bush's policy bars federal funding of research that would require killing human embryos but allows the use of embryonic stem cell lines created before 2001. Bush’s federal funding restrictions have prompted several states, including California and New Jersey, to institute their own funding of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. Bush’s stance has drawn the ire of many scientists and celebrities, including Nancy Reagan and actor Michael J. Fox, who have trumpeted the possibilities of "miracle cures" from the cells.

Private investment in ESC research is miniscule because no cures have been discovered, therefore many scientists are eager to obtain government funds. Adult stem cells are being used in dozens of treatments of conditions ranging from paralysis to diabetes to sickle cell anemia and leukemia.

The Senate’s adjournment without an agreement on the stem cell bills marked a change in expectations from mid-July, when some in the Senate were predicting a vote by month’s end. The negotiations center on three key bills.

• H.R. 810, which would allow federal research funds for experiments using "discarded" frozen IVF embryos. It is expected to pass handily but to be vetoed by President Bush. It passed the House of Representatives 238-194 on May 24th, with a number of Republicans, including some generally reliable pro-life votes, joining the majority.

• The Cord Blood Stem Cell Act, an adult stem cell bill to subsidize cord blood banks, which was passed by the House 431-1 and is a sure bet to pass the Senate and be signed by President Bush. Stem cells taken from cord blood are being used particularly to treat blood disorders, including sickle cell anemia and leukemia.

• S 658 which would prohibit human cloning in the U.S. This bill creates a dilemma for senators who do not want to be seen as supporting human cloning. However, many support embryonic stem cell research, which, in an open secret, is largely based not on "left-over" IVF babies but on cloned embryos.

Other bills on the table, including a proposal to fund research into finding or creating ethical forms of human pluripotent stem cells without killing embryos are hostage to the struggle over these three bills. (See Does Pro-Life Cloning Exist? The Debate Rages On", IgnatiusInsight.com, June 16, 2005.)

Even though bio-tech interests in California and elsewhere strongly oppose a ban on human cloning, those senators who support embryonic stem cell research will find it difficult to take a public stand in favor of human cloning since polls consistently show a majority opposed to human cloning. The country is more evenly divided on the use of embryonic stem cells taken from IVF embryos. Thus, there has been no vote on the human cloning ban since 1998, even though the House passed the bill and sent it to the Senate twice.

Cloning supporters have come up with an alternative bill that could provide political cover for those senators who support embryonic stem cell research and human cloning for research. Sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, it would allow therapeutic cloning – cloning humans solely for experimentation – but would ban human reproductive cloning.

Those who support the Brownback bill banning all forms of human cloning say they will block bringing that bill to the floor for a vote at the same time and will not sign off on any agreement that would include that bill in the package. That is one roadblock to a deal between Democrats and Republicans and within the Republican Senate majority, which is divided on this issue.

Meanwhile, some Senate staffers say that some pro-ESC senators are holding the Cord Blood Act hostage to getting H.R. 810 to the Senate for a vote. Others say few Senate Republicans want to vote on H.R. 810, because it remains a very controversial issue.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com articles:

Does Pro-Life Cloning Exist? The Debate Rages On | Valerie Schmalz | June 16, 2005
Cloning and Stem Cell Bills Set To Be Up For Senate Debate | Valerie Schmalz | July 16, 2005
Cloning and Stem Cells: Definitions of Key Terms
| Valerie Schmalz | July 16, 2005

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

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