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On Stem Cell Legislation, a Reprise With Twists

Proponents of stem cell research attend a news conference on legislation they support. From left are Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Proponents of stem cell research attend a news conference on legislation they support. From left are Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). (By Chris Greenberg -- Bloomberg News)

At issue are five-day-old human embryos that are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Stem cells from those embryos show promise for their ability to treat a wide array of diseases and for the secrets they may reveal about one of biology's biggest mysteries: how a fertilized egg cell can become a fully formed person.

Under a policy initiated by Bush on Aug. 9, 2001, taxpayer dollars can be used to study only those cells derived from embryos that were already destroyed by that date -- about 21 colonies of cells out of almost 400 that exist today.

The new legislation would expand that pool by allowing funding of work on cells from embryos slated for disposal at fertility clinics and donated by parents. It would also impose some of the first federal ethics rules on stem cell research, including a provision banning the sale of embryos.

The bill has the support of 66 senators, say Senate leaders, and more than the 238 representatives who voted for it in 2005.

Opponents, however, call the research an assault on nascent human life and an abandonment of society's most vulnerable, and there were reports last night that they might try to block passage in the House by attaching "poison pill" language that many stem cell proponents would have a hard time supporting.

Recent news about other, less controversial kinds of cells with traits resembling those of embryonic cells has already complicated the legislative push.

Opponents have long argued that "adult stem cells," various kinds of which exist in bone marrow, umbilical cords and other tissue, are suitable substitutes for embryonic cells. The true potential of those cells remains mostly unknown. But this week researchers published some of the strongest evidence yet that non-embryonic cells -- in this case, cells in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women -- might have much the same capacity as embryo cells.

In an unusual move, the White House itself touted the news Monday in a flurry of "In Case You Missed It" e-mails, as did activist groups such as the National Right to Life Committee.

"We applaud the work of those researchers who continue to look for ethical stem cell research alternatives that do not require destroying human life, and we call on Congress to support such ethical alternatives," the group's legislative director, Douglas Johnson, said in a statement.

But scientist after scientist said that, attractive as the new findings are, they remain preliminary and unconfirmed. Moreover, the work is eight years behind the progress already made with embryonic cells, which researchers hope to start testing in patients by next year.

Even the scientist who led the amniotic cell study released a letter Tuesday warning against using his work as an excuse to vote against broader stem cell funding.

"I understand that some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells," Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University School of Medicine wrote in a letter to DeGette and co-sponsor Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.). "I disagree with that assertion. . . . It is essential that National Institute[s] of Health-funded researchers are able to fully pursue embryonic stem cell research."

One strategy being considered by supporters is to add mollifying amendments to the Senate version, Castle said -- an option that was not open to the Senate last year under the arrangement brokered by then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Although specific provisions have not been discussed in detail, Castle said senators could add funding for programs that donate unwanted frozen embryos to infertile women, a favorite program of Bush's; require extra ethical oversight for stem cell research; or beef up support for parallel studies of non-embryonic cells.

Procedurally, if a veto does come, supporters would benefit if the Senate first modified the bill. That is because full passage would require a House-Senate conference, and under congressional rules the Senate would then control the bill. That means the first attempt to override the veto would be in the Senate -- where the votes are believed to be within reach -- instead of the House, which was first to vote on an override last year.

The House effort failed and would have a difficult time succeeding this year. But inspired by a Senate override and perhaps appeased by amendments in conference, some members who vote against the bill today could feasibly vote yes after a veto. Even if the override failed there, the bill would have gotten further than last time, aides say.

At that point, several strategies could come into play, including attaching it to a must-pass bill or holding hearings featuring desperate patients, which might embarrass the White House -- all possible because Democrats now chair the relevant committees. Subsequent votes could follow, forcing a string of vetoes.

"There is nothing wrong with this bill," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "We should pass this bill again and again and again and again, until we get a president who will sign it."

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