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Contentious Hearing Focuses on Stem Cells

Ronald M. Green, director of the Dartmouth College Ethics Institute, says he questions the moral logic of engineering special embryos for research.
Ronald M. Green, director of the Dartmouth College Ethics Institute, says he questions the moral logic of engineering special embryos for research. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

"If it's not an embryo, what is this Frankenstein-like thing we're creating?" he asked. "The hypocrisy here is indefensible."

Embryonic stem cells are coveted for their potential to repair damaged organs, but they have stirred controversy because their only known source is human embryos, which are destroyed in the process.

Under the Bush policy, federal funds may be used to study only those stem cells derived by Aug. 9, 2001 -- a restriction that has kept the federal scientific enterprise from studying the more than 100 colonies of stem cells developed since then, many of which appear superior to the older colonies.

Stem cell politics have grown immensely complicated in the past two weeks as opponents of the research realized they were likely to lose in the Senate -- a situation that would force Bush to decide whether to invoke a promised veto.

As of yesterday, it appeared that conservatives were drafting as many as six different stem cell-related bills, including ones that would encourage more research on adult stem cells; fund animal studies of alternative sources of stem cells; and ban human cloning.

With wording still in flux, it was unclear yesterday whether any of those bills would conflict with or preclude passage of the original bill to loosen the Bush rules. If not, senators might be able to vote for all of them and be able to say they support the search for alternative methods while also supporting the one approach that so far has been shown to work -- deriving stem cells from spare fertility clinic embryos.

Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which represents patient groups and other pro-stem cell interests, said the alternative approaches to generating stem cells amount to "a catch-all bag of speculation, unpublished science, wishful thinking and philosophical pretzel-bending."

Perry said he would be happy to support a search for alternatives if it did not undermine the primary effort to liberalize the Bush policy.

Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., who is developing a different way to get stem cells without harming embryos, agreed that improved access to conventionally derived stem cells should be the priority for now. "That's a no-brainer," he said.

Nick Smith, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), 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. He said a vote is expected by the end of July.

A coalition of 68 religious leaders of various faiths yesterday sent a letter to Frist urging him to support the effort to loosen the Bush rules.

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