Frist Breaks With Bush On Stem Cell Research

Frist Speaks From Senate Floor
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist speaks from the floor of the Senate Friday in Washington in support of legislation to remove some limitations on embryonic stem cell research. (APTN)
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 30, 2005

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced yesterday that he now supports legislation to lift President Bush's restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, a shift that infuriated religious conservatives and turned a spotlight back on the White House.

Frist, a physician, said during a lengthy Senate floor speech that he no longer thinks Bush's policy sufficiently enables scientists to pursue the "truly magnificent, truly remarkable properties" of stem cells taken from days-old human embryos.

In the face of a presidential veto threat, the Tennessee Republican with White House aspirations of his own said he will support House-passed legislation to repeal the Bush restrictions and allow research on stem cells donated by couples who have completed in vitro fertilization and no longer need their remaining frozen embryos. He hopes to schedule a Senate vote in September, though he acknowledged widespread disagreement on how to proceed with a debate that could involve up to eight competing bills.

"While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases," Frist said, as other senators flocked to the chamber to hear his speech.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan, some colleagues and Tennessee voters active in the patient advocacy movement hailed Frist for what some called a "courageous" and "principled" stand. At the same time, conservative activists accused him of flip-flopping and betraying his antiabortion beliefs.

Both sides said Frist's announcement is likely to win over some undecided lawmakers and might prompt Bush to reconsider his position.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has been among the most active supporters of stem cell research, said a veto is no longer a certainty.

"I personally think this ought to convince the president this research should go forward," he said in an interview. As Bush reviews the issue, Hatch said, "he will, like many others, say, 'What's wrong with helping the living?' "

But White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush stood by his threat.

"The president's made his position clear," McClellan said. "There is a principle involved here from the president's standpoint when it comes to issues of life."

Scientists, patient groups and a wide majority of Americans embrace the research because of the potential the cells hold for morphing into any type of cell or tissue in the human body. Early work suggests that the regrown cells could enable patients with cancer, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries to be treated with their own natural materials.

Because embryonic stem cells can "renew and replicate themselves infinitely," they are "uniquely necessary for potentially treating [other] diseases," Frist said.

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