Stem Cell Legislation Is at Risk

By Ceci Connolly and Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 9, 2005

Promising but still unproven new approaches to creating human embryonic stem cells have suddenly jeopardized what once appeared to be certain Senate passage of a bill to loosen President Bush's four-year-old restrictions on human embryo research.

The techniques are enticing to many conservative activists and scientists because they could yield medically valuable human embryonic stem cells without the creation or destruction embryos.

Embryonic stem cells are coveted because they have the capacity to become virtually every kind of body tissue and perhaps repair ailing organs, but they are controversial because days-old human embryos must be destroyed to retrieve them.

"The new science that may involve embryo research but not require destruction of an embryo is tremendously exciting," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said recently. "It would get you outside of the boundaries of the ethical constraints."

But because the value of these new scientific methods remains speculative, they have complicated the political calculus in the highly partisan Senate, which could take up the issue as early as next week.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research are divided over how strongly to promote the new work because of fears it will undermine efforts to expand federal funding of conventional embryo research, which they say has better odds of success.

But some opponents of embryo research are uncomfortable with the emerging alternatives, too. That is because they involve cells that closely resemble human embryos, raising novel questions about what, exactly, is a human life.

The science poses a strategic dilemma for both groups: Should they support newly circulating legislation that would fund the new methods or try to defeat what some decry as a Trojan horse?

"This is something that could be very valuable if it works, no doubt about it," Stanford University stem cell researcher Irving Weissman said of the new work. "But don't tell me we should stop doing [embryo] research until we find out, because people's lives are at stake."

In May, the House easily passed bipartisan legislation allowing federally funded scientists to study stem cells derived from some of the thousands of human embryos destined for disposal at fertility clinics -- a significant expansion of the Bush policy. Until this week, Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) expressed confidence that they had more than enough votes to pass the same bill in the Senate, despite threats of a presidential veto.

Last week, however, opponents began circulating a competing bill that shifts attention toward the more distant but ethically more palatable new procedures. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), was written with assistance from the White House, a Bartlett spokeswoman said.

The administration is eager for Bush to sign legislation supportive of at least some types of stem cell research, according to several lobbyists close to the congressional negotiations. Signing such a bill could take some of the sting out of a veto that is sure to infuriate patient groups and could rile a majority of Americans, who tell pollsters they back expanded funding of embryonic stem cell research.

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