By Raja Mishra, Globe Staff
ALTHAM - Speaking at a bioethics forum, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Mitt Romney yesterday endorsed embryonic stem cell research but avoided mention of human cloning, steering clear of a high-profile moral issue thrust into the public spotlight partly by Massachusetts scientists.
Both cloning and embryonic stem cells are closely tied to the national debate on abortion, on which Romney's stance has been called ambiguous by some. The two scientific techniques involve the destruction of early-stage embryos, and anti-abortiongroups have recently focused much of their energy on opposing the cutting-edge procedures.
The next governor could wield enormous influence over the debate. Beacon Hill lawmakers are already considering cloning regulations. Six other states recently banned forms of cloning, and 38 anti-cloning bills were introduced in 22 states in just the last six months. If the current efforts in Washington to regulate the field fail, the issue is likely to fall to state legislatures.
Romney spoke at a Brandeis University-hosted forum on biomedical research. He endorsed embryonic stem cell research, saying the controversial science might one day help treat his wife's multiple sclerosis in addition to numerous other degenerative diseases. But he was silent on the other marquee bioethical issue of the day, cloning - even though the forum included a panel discussion on the topic.
Later, deputy Romney campaign manager Eric Fehrnstrom, explained: ''We haven't looked at [cloning] closely enough. It's a very complicated subject and we want to know it more thoroughly.''
Human embryonic cloning burst into the public eye last November, after the Worcester biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology Inc. disclosed its attempts to clone human embryos for medical research purposes.
One of Romney's Democratic opponents, Steve Grossman, took the podium minutes later to blast his silence on cloning.
''I didn't hear the word cloning mentioned at all,'' he said. ''I think he ducked the question.''
Grossman supports embryo cloning for medical research, which seeks to harvest stem cells from week-old embryos to grow easily accessible replacement tissues to treat disease. There is a consensus among scientists and lawmakers that cloned embryos should never be implanted in women to produce babies.
Romney spoke extensively about his position on stem cell research, which also involves embryo destruction.
''I am in favor of stem cell research. I will work and fight for stem cell research,'' he said, adding, ''I'd be happy to talk to [President Bush] about this, though I don't know if I could budge him an inch.''
Last summer, Bush set tight limits on taxpayer-funded embryonic stem cell research, and the field has since grown sluggishly.
Romney has previously attracted critics for his stance on abortion. Earlier this year, he said: ''On a personal basis, I don't favor abortion. However, as governor of the Commonwealth, I will protect the right of a woman to choose under the law of the country and the laws of the Commonwealth.''
Polls show that 60 percent of Massachusetts voters favor abortion. The numbers aren't clear for cloning, though the majority of the Boston area's massive medical community supports it, and dozens of local biotech firms and universities recently lobbied the US Senate on behalf of the research.
Fehrnstrom of the Romney campaign said the candidate would soon reveal
his stance on cloning but refused to say when that would occur.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company