WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) Jul 17 - Awaiting a decision from President George W. Bush on whether to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, lawmakers, patients, and activists on both sides of the issue squared off on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Most observers believe that Bush will announce his long-awaited decision shortly after returning from his European trip. Meanwhile, advocates both for and against using government money to fund human embryo research are engaged in a full-scale lobbying and public-relations battle to try to influence the public and the president.
"I believe that when the president understands the full scientific import, the full public policy import, and where the votes are, that we're going to win this one," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who favors government funding for the research.
Combatants are also waiting for tomorrow morning's release of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) report on the future of stem cell research. The report is expected to acknowledge the potential of adult stem cell studies while at the same time bolstering the claims of many scientists that only embryonic cells have the ability to reproduce prolifically in a laboratory and differentiate widely.
Scientists obtain embryonic stem cells by harvesting them from extra frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. Because the cells are pluripotent — meaning that they have the ability to give rise to dozens of different kinds of cells — they are widely thought to hold great promise for treating a wide range of diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
Supporters of the research say the potential benefits of the research outweigh ethical liability of destroying embryos — a byproduct of obtaining stem cells not culled from adults or children.
Opponents counter that the potential of embryonic cells remains unproven and that more efforts should be made to promote adoption of embryos by infertile couples.
Lawmakers on Tuesday heard testimony from the parents of children who were once embryos slated for destruction. Lucinda Borden, a mother of twin infants named Mark and Luke, pleaded with Congress and the president "not to fund [the] slaughter" of embryos sitting in "the frozen orphanages" of fertility clinics.
"Mark and Luke are a living rebuttal to the claim that embryos are not people," Borden, a resident of Fontana, California, told members of a House Government Reform subcommittee.
Much of the stem-cell debate has fallen along the familiar lines of traditional abortion politics. Pro-choice advocates generally favor the funding of research, while many pro-life advocates oppose it.
But the issue has caused a rift in pro-life ranks, with several anti-abortion lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Specter, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Gordon Smith of Oregon throwing their support behind funding research using embryonic stem cells.
"I believe that being pro-life means helping the living," said Smith, who joined in an earlier press conference with Republicans and Democrats in favor of funding stem cell research. "I believe life begins in a mother's womb and not in a petri dish."
Members of the House subcommittee were divided over whether the president should allow the NIH to fund scientists who are looking embryonic cells as a way to propel the discovery of novel treatments and cures. Subcommittee chair Steven Horn, a California Republican, said that adult stem cell research should be maximized to see if it can yield cures for cancer and other diseases.
"In our quest to find these cures we must not ignore or rationalize the tremendous moral question posed by destroying living human embryos," Horn said.
Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican who is also a physician, stressed that while adult stem cells are already used to treat disease such as lupus and leukemia, embryonic stem cells have never been used even in experimental animal models. Even if embryonic cells are effective, the government should not have a role in destroying human embryos, he said.
"Are we going to hold as society a sanctity of human life ethic or a utilitarian approach to the value of human life?" Weldon said.
Subcommittee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) argued that allowing the government to fund stem-cell research will ensure that strict NIH ethical standards are applied and that the benefits of studies are immediately shared with the public.
"Such research will be conducted
in the light of day, subject to public scrutiny, by the best scientific
minds," he said.
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd