Sunday, July 10, 2005

Stem Cell Debate Still to Come

The Senate is expected to take up the question of increased federal funding for embryonic stem cell research sometime this week, and in an almost-missed moment from today's talk shows, Senators Specter and Leahy both expressed optimism that the measure will pass. The bill that is expected to come up for consideration, sponsored by Senators Specter and Tom Harkin (D-IA), would allow funding for research on stem cells taken from embryos that would otherwise be discarded. It is identical to a bill which passed the House by a wide margin back in May.

Asked about the Senate bill's prospects on Sunday, Senator Specter said he expects it will pass, and Senator Leahy agreed. The exchange is mentioned at the end of a Monday New York Times article about the other news made on "Face the Nation" (Specter's suggestion of Justice O'Connor to be Chief Justice should Rehnquist announce his retirement).

Specter's optimism came just a day after a Washington Post piece by Ceci Connolly and Rick Weiss declared the stem cell bill in jeopardy. According to their report, a competing piece of legislation, which would support funding for "[p]romising but still unproven new approaches to creating human embryonic stem cells" that allow the production of stem cells without embryos, has begun to gather support in the Senate and threatens to derail a vote on Specter-Harkin.

One of the major backers of this new route, not surprisingly, is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. As I've mentioned before, Frist once supported funding along exactly the same lines as the Specter-Harkin bill would, but he has backed far from that position now (as noted here). Of the non-embryonic proposal, Frist said "The new science that may involve embryo research but not require destruction of an embryo is tremendously exciting. It would get you outside of the boundaries of the ethical constraints." And, he should have added, it would get him out of a tricky political bind.

I don't see any problem with the other proposal - both would be appropriate. But passage of the Specter-Harkin bill is a critical step forward in stem cell research. There is no, I repeat no reason to oppose this bill on pro-life grounds, since it explicitly states that only embryos that would otherwise be destroyed will be used for research. There is no question about these embryos being used to create human life: literally it's either use them them for stem cell research which has the potential to find ways to save millions of lives, or throw them in the waste-bin. Doesn't seem like a particularly difficult choice to me.

As we move through the week the schedule of votes will become clearer, and it's going to be important that we all stay on top of this fluid situation and make sure our senators are prepared to support Specter-Harkin. The other proposal, if it comes up, would certainly not be something I'd oppose ... but I would support it as an addition to Specter-Harkin, not a replacement.


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