Ehrlich Alters Landscape Of Stem Cell Funding Debate

Alexandra Glickman, with husband Yakov, spoke yesterday in support of a stem cell research. Glickman has transverse myelitis, a spinal condition.
Alexandra Glickman, with husband Yakov, spoke yesterday in support of a stem cell research. Glickman has transverse myelitis, a spinal condition. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Yesterday's hearings on stem cell research in Maryland had a familiar ring: Advocates touted the potential for treating Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes and other conditions, and opponents raised the same ethical objections they made a year ago when lawmakers proposed spending $25 million a year on the emerging science.

But it was a voice legislators did not hear, neither yesterday nor a year ago, that could alter this year's debate -- that of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

After remaining mostly silent on a bill that was killed last year by a Republican-led filibuster threat, Ehrlich (R) is pushing a plan to spend $20 million next year on stem cell research.

But Ehrlich is not committing himself on the question that has stirred the most controversy: whether the money should be used primarily for work on stem cells derived from human embryos or from less controversial adult stem cells.

Although the move has drawn some criticism, Ehrlich argued in an interview that he is acting prudently, given the evolving nature of the science.

"I wasn't that good of a biology student. I'm not going to make that decision," Ehrlich said. "The point here is that the decision should be a function of the science. These are fundamentally science questions, not political questions."

The governor would leave it to a state-founded technology corporation to decide whether to provide grants for work on adult stem cells or work on embryonic stems cells, which many scientists say holds greater promise but some in his party consider tantamount to abortion.

Ehrlich, who has supported stem cell research since his days in Congress, said that his public silence last year masked a behind-the-scenes effort to develop an alternate approach that would both bolster the state's biotechnology sector and depoliticize a difficult issue for Republicans.

"The strong pro-life members know the administration does not share their views on this issue, but we wanted to try to lower the temperature on the politics," he said. "I wanted to try to keep everyone's eye on the ball, and I believe this approach accomplishes that goal."

Ehrlich's involvement has scrambled the politics surrounding the issue, making it all but certain Maryland will join the growing number of states subsidizing the research, either with the legislation considered at yesterday's hearings or a provision Ehrlich has inserted into his budget.

Ehrlich said his budget-based approach makes additional legislation unnecessary.

Some advocates of the research say Ehrlich's plan has merit and view it as more likely to withstand opposition in the Senate.

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