Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Senate Stem Cells Debate Updates

I have to give some credit to the press today: the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times all have articles up about the stem cell bait & switch that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is attempting to pull off, for his own benefit and that of the White House (which wants desperately to avoid vetoing a bill that has broad popular support).

Mary Curtius' piece in the LAT gets the most creative headline award: "Stem Cells Bills Have Multiplied." She writes, ominously, that the alternative measures (as many as five) that the White House and Bill Frist are pushing are beginning to siphon votes away from Specter-Harkin, which would allow federal funding for research on stem cells taken from embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. "Just last week," says Curtius, backers of Specter-Harkin "were confident that their measure would easily pass the Senate, and might come close to a veto-proof majority of 67 votes in the 100-seat chamber. By Tuesday afternoon, they were saying the vote would be much closer - and the bill could be defeated."

I think Curtius is right in suggesting the vote will be much closer than it would be without the additional bills in the mix, but I'm heartened by comments in her piece and the others today by leading Republicans. Orrin Hatch, a strong conservative who supports Specter-Harkin, accused the White House and Frist of "stacking the deck" against it by throwing in the other bills. Senator Ted Stevens, another usual White House ally, said he agreed with Specter's approach "one hundred percent."

The Washington Post piece, by Rick Weiss, focuses on hearings held yesterday in the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health, human services and education (chaired by Senator Specter), and specifically on the different moral questions raised by some of the new proposals being offered up as substitutes for Specter-Harkin. He highlights a quote from Daniel Perry of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, who called the 'new approaches' "a catch-all bag of speculation, unpublished science, wishful thinking and philosophical pretzel-bending." He added that he "would be happy to support a search for alternatives if it did not undermine the primary effort to liberalize the Bush policy."

Interestingly, Weiss includes a bit from Frist spokesman Nick Smith, who "said Frist has not yet decided which bills he will support or how many would be folded into a unanimous consent agreement now under construction." I have no reason to believe that Frist will support Specter-Harkin (although he said in 2001 that he backed funding for the exact same kind of research it envisions); in fact I have every reason to believe that he will not support it - but the Smith statement is slightly intriguing.

In the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg adds that Nancy Reagan, a strong proponent of stem cell research, "has been making telephone calls to undecided senators urging them to support the Specter-Harkin bill, said Doug Wick, a friend of the Reagan family. Mr. Wick, another advocate for embryonic stem cell research, also said Mrs. Reagan had 'spoken very frankly to Senator Frist several times on her feelings about embryonic stem cell research.'"

The Washington Post also editorializes about stem cells writing, writing in "Pass the Stem Cell Bill" "... [T]he public now faces the question of whether to let moral anxiety about the use of human embryos frustrate science that could save and improve many lives. This might be a difficult choice were these embryos not being created and destroyed anyway. But these small clusters of cells, which are not yet even fetuses, are routinely generated in fertilization clinics in quantities that exceed the number of embryos that will actually be implanted in women. They will never grow into babies; the only question is whether they will be discarded or used in a fashion that benefits humanity."

The Post adds that additional routes of research should obviously be explored, "[b]ut these techniques are, at this stage, nascent and uncertain and have not yet successfully yielded cell lines. They therefore cannot now support the research that is so urgently needed. Federal support for research into their viability is at best a complement to - not a substitute for - funding the full range of study possible now on embryonic lines. Such hypothetical alternatives should not be permitted to derail an important change in policy."

In other stem-cell related news from Tuesday, Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich "issued an executive order that set aside $10 million of the state's public health department budget for stem cell research - including work with embryonic stem cells, Curtius writes. Blagojevich used the executive order to do what he called an "end-run around the legislature," since "the subject is so controversial, we'd never get anything started otherwise." The New York Times has a stand-alone piece on the Illinois action.

A debate and vote on any or all of the various stem cell measures is to be held before the end of July. It's going to be incredibly important as we move forward that senators who would be supportive of Specter-Harkin do not get lulled away by these various alternatives. They may all be just fine, but they're not enough by themselves. Contact your senators, and urge them to stay behind Specter-Harkin when it comes to the floor.


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