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Stem Cell Debate Continues in Maryland

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County)
Thursday, March 10, 2005; 1:00 PM

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) examined the ongoing debate over embryonic stem cell research in the Maryland General Assembly, where he has worked to enlist Republicans and antiabortion Democrats to engage in a filibuster, according to The Washington Post.

Recent Post Coverage:
Stem Cell Debate Hits Assembly (John Wagner, March 3)
Stem Cell Showdown Looms in Annapolis (John Wagner, February 6)


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Sen. Harris was online Thursday, March 10 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the ongoing debate over embryonic stem cell research.

John Gearhart, C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine and pioneer in the field of embryonic stem cell research, was online Thursday at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the ongoing debate.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you for your questions. Sen. Harris has been delayed. He will be online to answer your questions by 1:25.

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washingtonpost.com: Sen. Harris, thank you for joining us today. Maryland lawmakers introduced legislation in February to spend state money on embryonic stem cell research that has been restricted by President Bush at the federal level. Can you explain the ongoing debate over the research in the Maryland General Assembly? What are the issues being discussed?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): The debate revolves around two issues - whether embryonic stem cell research that destroys a human living embryo is ethical, and, if it is, is it the best use of state money. Medical research is normally funded at the state level. Additionally, this funding would probably reduce the funding for cancer research. That's why the American Cancer Society opposes the bill

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washingtonpost.com: Sen. Harris will be with us momentarily. Thank you.

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Rockville, Md.: Why is it moral to have gambling in Maryland, but it's not moral for taxpayers to fund research that could potentially save lives down the road?

It seems to me that there is a double standard here: gambling is OK because it produces revenue for the state, despite the fact that some Maryland residents will likely have their lives destroyed by legalized slots. But stem cell research is not OK?

Personally, as a Marylander, I'd much rather have my state known as a leader in stem cell research than as a haven for slots.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): You make a good point. There is a valid argument that gambling is also unethical - and we certainly have lots of it in Maryland with a state lottery that raises over $400 million per year!

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Baltimore, Md.: I am a Catholic Republican, but I definitely oppose your stand on stem cell research. Apart from the moral imperative to support this research for people with tragic illnesses, there are very real economic issues at work here. Other countries are already passing the U.S. in developing technologies in this field. Why would you want to get in the way of this progress?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): Thanks for you comments. But, realistically, you could retain these researchers by having them funded for adult stem cell research - most researchers would welcome the additional funds. Testimony at the committee hearing suggested strongly that adult stem cells will be the ultimate answer.

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Towson, Md.: Greetings Senator,
I respect your point of view, but both my parents are in early stages of Alzheimer's disease, a condition that scientists say could be treated using embryonic stem cells. What do you say to constituents who are in this situation and would like to see research continue? How are you representing them?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): I am sorry to hear that your loved ones suffer from Alzheimer's disease. I wish you had been at the Senate hearing, where a proponent of this research admitted that Alzheimer's is NOT one of the diseases that would likely be treated by ESC research, or even by adult stem cells. Alzheimer's is a very different disease from those others that are being suggested as potential cures with this type of therapy - but you should ask very knowledgeable researchers and physicians, not be misled by those who really are giving you false hope. Please give me a call or email - I can get into much more detail as to why this is true.

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washingtonpost.com: The Washington Post quoted you on the bill in a recent article:
"Harris, the minority whip and the chamber's only doctor, said the bill 'crosses the ethical divide' in his view. Moreover, Harris said, 'it makes no sense for Maryland to get in the business of funding this research. For states to delve into this is very much beyond the role of state government.'"
Can you define what you meant by the "ethical divide" and further explain your remarks?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): We would be dealing with living human embryos, and killing them for research purposes. Additionally, the bill as introduced would allow cloning for research purposes. I think that's a true 'ethical divide".
As to funding, serious medical research funding, and that's in the 10's of billions of dollars annually, comes from the NIH (the federal government) and the private sector. They are best prepared to look at all the proposals nationwide, and fund the most promising. That's the most efficient use of tax dollars - and the most likely way to get the answers we need.

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Baltimore, Md.: Sen Harris -Harrisp>From my understanding of the process, aren't all the embryos destroyed for research from IV clinics, where they would be destroyed anyway? Why isn't there the same moral outcry against IV clinics? Isn't potential live-saving research a better use of life than just wasting it?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): That's a good question. There are some who feel, as I do, that we should first encourage the donation of these frozen embryos to those who can't have their own, for various reasons. We had testimony from a paraplegic and his wife, who had IVF with a donated frozen embryo, and their baby was with them at the hearing!

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Bethesda, Md.: Why is it so objectionable to use embryos from fertility clinics which will never be used and will be, in all likelihood, thrown away for stem cell research? If it's life, it's being discarded either way. This appears to be an inherent contradiction.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): That's a good observation - there are many who feel that "throwing away" the embryo without offering it to other childless couples who can't have their own IVF embryos is not right, either. I guess the question is whether these living human embryos are "possessions" that can be thrown away.

I think we should encourage adult stem cell research,which is more promising, and also tackle the ethical issue of the frozen embryos.

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Frederick, Md.: Sen. Harris,

My six-year-old daughter was born withcongenitalial heart defect. She's already had three open-heart surgeries -- and she may need more down the road.

Stem cell research could benefit her greatly, if it leads to new ways to grow heart-valves or replace faulty organs. If my daughter needs a transplant down the road, stem cell research could prove the difference between life and death for her.

Of course, it may not benefit her. We won't know unless we do the research.

I understand that this is a moral issue for you. But for people like me, it isn't. It's about helping the people we love to live longer, healthier, more productive lives.

By opposing funding for stem cell research, you are essentially saying that embryos matter more than actual, living human beings -- like my daughter. You are prioritizing the life of a POSSIBLE child over the life of an actual, breathing child.

How do you justify that?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): I am sorry to hear about your daughter. I agree that stem cell research may be a way to help her live a normal life. But, in fact, adult stem cells are being used to replace heart muscle. Testimony at the hearing indicated that adult stem cells are the future.
We should treat living human embryos with respect. At the hearing, we had a paraplegic with his wife and child. The child, a beautiful two year old, was a frozen "leftover" embryo. That's the best outcome for a frozen embryo.

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Southern Maryland: I have read that most of the embryos used in stem cell research come from in vitro fertilization -- this process apparently produces more embryos than can be implanted. So why don't opponents lobby to discontinue in vitro?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): There are some who feel that we do produce too many embryos currently. But the testimony at the hearing is that the best embryos for this research would be cloned embryos, not those "leftover' from IVF.

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Anonymous: If these embryos are not used for research, what would happen to them? Would we able to produce a human from each unused embryo?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): Absolutely. We had a couple at the hearing, a paraplegic and his wife, with their two-year-old daughter who was a donated frozen embryo. I hope we can all agree that's the best outcome for a frozen embryo. It's called the "snowflake" program, encouraging couples to donate their "extra" embryos to those who can't have their own.

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Washington, D.C.: Sen. Harris,
I agree that Md. shouldn't be in the business of funding this because it is not right body to do so and the funds that are proposed to support this are not appropriate. (Using the money being contemplated for the ICC for this, however, would be a better use of THAT money). What we do need is for Md. to make it clear that NIH should be funding this research. Why is it such a big deal to destroy a potential human life that can't even be seen by the naked eye, but then we shrug and figure that it just too bad when the streets of Baltimore run red with the blood of street crime, encouraged by poverty, lack of opportunity, racism, and poor education. Opposing embryonic stem cell research is a convenient way to take attention from the real moral issues, in my opinion.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): You make good points. All these are the truly important moral issues of our times.
We need to deal with all of them. In a careful, and thoughtful manner.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm sorry, but I don't understand one of your points. You mention that research should be focused on adult stems cells, but I am under the impression that they don't offer the same opportunities as embryonic stems cells, which is why scientists want them.

Can you please clarify?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): THe clear testimony at our hearing, from a proponent of ECS research, is that the future is adult stem cells. There's a variety of reasons that this is true that have to do with immunology, rejection, uncontrolled growth of ECS, etc.
We can get there with ECS research that doesn't involve the killing of living human embryos. There are animal models, and lines of cells that get federal funding, even if they're not ideal. And, of course, continuing ASC research is key.

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Bethesda, Md.: Any other examples? -- you've played out the paraplegic and the two year old. Additionally, I wouldn't want my embryo donated and if it were to turn into a child have my child be raised by strangers.

I would prefer to advance science -- most of us intelligent Americans would choose the same.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): Well, first, I have to take issue with your suggestion that those who disagree with you are not intelligent Americans.

You should attend a full hearing on these issues.
The press has given mostly one side of the story. And one issue that needs to be discussed is whether a living (frozen) human embryo is property. Some courts have decided they are not.

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Anonymous: How would you feel if there was a guarantee that cancer research funding would not be affected by stem cell research?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): A good question, but I and other senators have to consider the implications in their entirety. There are several levels of objection to this approach.
These other objections still exist, and in my mind, still would lead me to conclude that this is not good policy for Maryland.
You should look into the most recent research that would allow that creation of embryonic stem cells without killing a living "embryo"!

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Annapolis, Md.: Using excess IVF eggs from fertility treatments for embryonic stem cell research has absolutely nothing to do with a women's right to terminate a pregnancy or abortion, so why are you engaging Republicans and antiabortion Democrats in a filibuster? There are many pro-life advocates -- democrats and republicans -- who believe in using these eggs that would be discarded anyhow to help find cures for people that may die, for example, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) and can still stay true to their pro-life beliefs.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): I think you read the press accounts - it is their characterization of the opponents of this bill as "anti-abortion" senators. This bill brings in life issues that are similar, but or course this is not a "abortion" bill.

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Thank you: Thank you for discussing this important issue and taking a somewhat unpopular stand on this important moral dilemma.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): Thank you for your kind words.

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Fairfax, Va.: Thank you for your courageous stand on this issue. People are willing to stomp all over ethical and moral hurdles in the hope that something no matter how evil its origin could help a loved one. Although my heart aches for these people, it is useful to remember the fetal cell fiasco of a few years ago (remember how that was supposed to be the miraculous cure for so much suffering?) and just about every new advance that promises to end world hunger, cancer, etc. Man's capacity for tinkering in the lab sadly outpaces his capacity for compassion. Suffering is alleviated by first valuing human life. Don't compromise yourself; I and many other applaud your efforts.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): This complex issue is still evolving. You are correct - there will be further changes that will make this ethical problem moot very shortly.

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Washington, D.C.: I just wanted to say that I support your stance on stem cell research. I truly believe even an embryo is a human being that should not be destroyed. Just wanted to let you know that even we who are affected by diseases that could potentially be cured by stem cell research support a ban. Human life is precious, from start to finish. Just look at the Pope!

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): Thank you for your kind words. The Pope, as well as many other affected individuals, agree that this crosses an ethical divide that we don't need to cross at this time.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm sorry Senator, but that was not an answer. What about the fact that the embryos are going to be destroyed anyway? Also, what is your position on the creation of these embryos? Obviously, they only exist because of scientific intervention in nature.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): I'm sorry, I can't see your original question and my reply to it on my screen. I personally don't oppose IVF, but I do oppose the destruction of living human embryos that are created in the process. I know that there are people who disagree with IVF being a creation of life best left to the "Creator".

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Washington, D.C.: Please explain what you mean when you say some courts have decided that frozen embryos are not property. Exactly what are you implying they are?

Also, how many of the people who testified at this hearing supported the idea that adult stem cells are better than embryonic stem cells? You seem to be saying that there is a scientific concensus on this and I do not believe that is accurate.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): First, there is a well-known case in Tennessee (and other places) that revolved around how these embryos are treated in divorce situations. Courts have ruled that they are not treated as "property" like a house, car, etc.

There was significant testimony at our hearing, as well as federal hearings. There is no "consensus" - there usually isn't in many aspects of medicine and medical research. That being said, there are many, many researchers (with $300 million in federal funding, at least) who do only adult stem cell research, even though many lines of ECS are available.

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Va.: I am genuinely confused about the pro-life movement's position on stem cell research. They are clearly opposed to it, as they say that fetal cells should not be used for any purpose. Yet these same people are perfectly happy to vaccinate their children with vaccines containing fetal cells (including chicken pox, rubella, and some others). Can you please explain to me why it's acceptable to use fetal cells for some purposes but not others? It seems extremely hypocritical to me for the pro-life movement to say that vaccines containing fetal cells are acceptable to use, since they benefit their children, but stem cell research, which may benefit others, is unacceptable.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): A good question, but ECS uses embryos, not just fetal cells. Embryos can grow into full-grown human beings, like you and me. Fetal cells cannot - they are cells that cannot grow into an adult individual. That being said, there are those who fell that if those cells were obtained from aborted fetuses, it would be less than ethical.
And, finally, event eh most ardent pro-life folks support stem cell research - as long as it's not derived from living human embryos (e.g. adult, umbilical cord stem cells, etc.)

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Bethesda, Md.: Can you tell me what the position of Gov. Ehrlich is regarding state funding for stem cell research, specifically embryonic stem cell research? I thought I saw somewhere that he supported President Bush's policy on funding and believes that funding should be handled at the Federal level. Do you think he would veto any bill that might get through the Md. state legislature?

Thanks.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): The governor did support the President's decision in 2001. I don't know if his position has changed - but he does not think that the state is the appropriate funding source. It's not as good or efficient as the NIH process (my opinion).

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Boston, Mass.: The argument that stem cells have the genetic material to become a life doesn't hunt. Blood, spit for that matter, also has the DNA necessary to create life. Yet we don't legislate spitting. Why the special case for embrionic material?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): It was clear testimony that if you implant these embryos into a uterus, they grow into an adult human being - unlike those other sources.
Your point, however, is why ultimately we won't need ECS to harness the value of stem cells -- we all have the DNA we need in each of our cells to grow whatever tissue type we need, we just don't know how to turn those genes on right now! But we will.

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Annapolis, Md.: Hi--

When does life begin?

Does life begin when two cells join to form a fertilized human egg?

Or does life begin, as Roe vs. Wade asserts, after the first trimester when, according to this Supreme Court ruling there is a sentient being in the womb?

What is the status of an unfertilized human egg? Is it life?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): Thanks for your question.

I urge everyone to read Roe v. Wade. It's not an easy read. It doesn't say that human life begins at the end of the first trimester of pregnancy (actually, their dividing line of rights is at viability, which of course is constantly changing). What it does is "balance" rights, and at viability, the rights of the fetus are equal to the rights of the mother.

There are many definitions of when "life" begins. At fertilization, though, you have all the DNA genetic material that you will ever have, and if left in the right environment, will grow to be an adult human being.

No one I know of (but there may be someone out there), feels or claims that an unfertilized egg is life.

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Annapolis, Md.: Has any member of your family ever been diagnosed with diabetes, Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's? If so, how can you reconcile precluding further research for potential cures? If not, how can you pass judgement in this case?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): Absolutely. Just like any family, there are people in my family with diseases that are claimed to be potential cures with stem cells (except for paraplegia, thank God).

That being said, there are dozens of clinical trials right now using adult stem cells as treatment. Diabetes is being treated, for instance.

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Eldersburg, Md.: I have stage 3 NHLymphoma and have been told that while the new clinical trials can help prolong my life, there is no cure and I will die from this disease.

Concerning embryonic stem cell research, I have read the following information about adult stem cell research:
Researchers at New York University School of Medicine announced, "There is a cell in the bone marrow that can serve as the stem cell for most, if not all, of the organs in the body ... This study provides the strongest evidence yet that the adult body harbors stem cells that are as flexible as embryonic stem cells."

McGill University researchers discover "stem cells deep in the skin of rats and humans that can become fat, muscle or even brain cells ... Scientists are driven by the hope of bringing science closer to treatments for spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, heart disease and brain disorders -— treatments made from patients' own cells."

These are stem cells from adult bone marrow that do not trigger rejection, "even after the cells differentiate into specialized tissues such as bone or fat." The "cells seem to go only to damaged areas . . . (turning) into heart muscle, blood vessels, and fibrous tissue."

My first question is WHY should I support embryonic stem cell research thereby taking a life, when adult stem cell research is as promising if not more promising?

Secondly, I have heard that older embryos that were going to be discarded are being considered and this is supposed to be okay. Why does Europe use fertility methods that do not create unused embryos -- and are successful, and we continue to use a process that creates this surplus?

I heard on the radio that there are groups that are adopting these "unwanted" embryos for those couples with infertility problems. With the massive amounts of people that are hoping and waiting desperately for children to adopt, wouldn't it be better to use these embryos in this mannerdissectingisecting them for research?

While I intend to donate my body to research when I die, most people cannot stand the idea of people dissecting their body after death. This emotion deals with a body that is dead. The embryo is a viable human being. Does this mean that if we approve embryo research, we should also approve mandatory research on people after they die? Would this improve Maryland's economics?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): You make very good points. "De-differentiation" of even differentiated adult cells appears to result in cells that act like "stem cells", and can grow into a variety of different tissues.
AS to you second question, there are programs such as the "snowflake" program that seek to place "extra" human embryos with couples that can't have their own.

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washingtonpost.com: You are also a medical doctor. Has this influenced your position on the issue? If so, how?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): This issue does involve very basic science and medicine. For instance, I feel that I understand with my knowledge of basic genetics that an embryo has all you need to grow into an adult human being. I also can appreciate that the claims regarding Alzheimer's are greatly exaggerated because of the nature of the disease itself. This is unfair to those with the disease and their families - the cure for Alzheimer's, when we get it, will not be from stem cells, adult or embryo.

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College Park, Md.: Honorable Senator Harris:

I certainly understand your quandry over embryonic stem cell research. However, I find it difficult to understand how one would believe that these embryo's have the same inherent value as a person like you or me.

We are not talking about fetuses or babies, but about a cluster of cells that contain humIntuitivelytitively, this cluster of cells does not have the same value of an adult or child, and it appears to me this sentiment is visible in the vast majority of Americans, even pro-life Americans.

I say this because most Americans support an exception to abortion restrictions if the womans's life is in danger. However, if people honestly felt that an embryo was of the same value as the mother, this decision would be far more difficult. Place yourself in the situation where you must choose between a mother and her 10 year old child. Assuming one must die, determining who is to seems almost impossible. Yet when determining between the life of a woman and an embryo, the decision appears much easier to make.

I could go into a number of other arguments: why potentiality of personhood doesn't work, why human biology is neither necessary nor sufficient for ethical value, but I will leave those aside for now.

This is not to say an embryo has no value, just simply not an inherent value that carries with it rights to life, a value shared by all people. The question then becomes is the value of an embryo more than the value of its potential for saving a number of lives already in existence.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): Well, your points are well made. But what is different about the embryo? It's clearly human (that's all it can becomedefinitiondefintion, therefor that's what it is) So what gives it "personhood"? Is it size (are smaller people less valuable that larger?) Is it level of development (is it less human than it is at 3, or 6 months in utero, or 3 days after birth - these are all less developed than adults). Is it where the embryo is (do we have less value depending on where we are)? Is it the degree of dependence of the embryo (if someone is dependent on dialysis are they less valuable)?
When we try to draw these lines, we have a very slippery slope.

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Adelphi, Md.: Recently I read a very interesting article by a medical writer named Michael Fumento. He presented a lot of evidence that research on therapies using ADULT stem cells is far more advanced than research with embryonic stem cells, but that it is virtually ignored by the news media. Have you looked into that, and do you agree with that assessment?

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County): There was significant testimony, including from proponents of this bill, that adult stem cells are the future.

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