The divisive national debate over embryonic stem cell research will arrive in Annapolis tomorrow, when Maryland lawmakers will introduce legislation to spend state money on science that the federal government refuses to fund.
Modeled after a successful ballot initiative in California, the legislation calls for Maryland to spend $25 million a year on research that has been restricted by President Bush at the federal level.
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Supporters say the state money is needed to maintain Maryland's edge in the biotechnology sector and tout the promise that such research offers for treatment of debilitating conditions such as Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.
Embryonic stem cell research is strenuously opposed by people who believe that extracting cells from a viable embryo amounts to the destruction of human life.
"I'm sure that it's going to be a tremendous battle," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate. "But this is such promising research -- it seems like there's a new breakthrough every day."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) predicted in an interview that his chamber would pass the bill.
The politics are far more complicated for Senate leaders and for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who has yet to take a position on state funding for stem cell research.
Hollinger heads the committee that will consider the bill in the Senate, where opponents have begun plotting a filibuster in hopes of defeating it on the floor. That prospect troubles Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has generally tried to keep controversial social issues off the floor to protect conservative Democrats in his chamber from tough votes.
"The entire national debate is going to rear its ugly head here in Annapolis," predicted Miller (D-Calvert).
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor would look closely at the bill and "remains very sympathetic to the biotech companies in Maryland."
But Ehrlich would face a certain outcry from abortion opponents in his party if he supported the legislation. As a member of Congress in 2001, he called Bush's restriction of funding for embryonic stem cell research "a positive step" in a letter to constituents.
A representative of the Maryland Catholic Conference, one of many interest groups gearing up for the fight, said lawmakers should not even be talking about the "economic gain" that could come from research on viable embryos.
"It's absolutely unethical to create a human life for the purpose of destroying it," said Nancy Fortier, an associate director of the organization. "A human embryo is a human life. It's wrong to treat life as raw material in a science research project."
In recognition of such concerns, Bush in August 2001 limited federal spending for stem cell research to existing colonies of cells derived from unused embryos produced through in vitro fertilization and donated for research purposes.