TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers tackled the issue of stem-cell research Tuesday facing the same question that dominates a national debate: Should taxpayers fund research that involves destroying human embryos?
That question played the key role as senators considered dueling bills that each call for spending $20 million a year on stem-cell research — but differ about whether money should go to embryonic research.
Faye Armitage, a Jacksonville mother, told senators about her son, Jason, who suffered a spinal-cord injury while playing soccer when he was 7. She implored lawmakers to move forward with embryonic stem-cell research, which she said holds the most promise for helping Jason and others with debilitating medical conditions.
“It is simply unconscionable to hold up the science that could save them,” said Armitage, with her now 16-year-old-son sitting next to her in a wheelchair.
But moments later, Nathan Dunn, a lobbyist for the legislative arm of the socially conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said doing embryonic research would destroy human life. He called it “unethical.”
“Destruction of human life is wrong, under any circumstances,” Dunn said.
The Senate Health Policy Committee took up the issue in what could be the first step in a politically and morally charged debate. The committee, however, passed both of the competing bills, giving little indication about how lawmakers will eventually resolve the issue.
Scientists say stem-cell research could lead to breakthroughs in treating devastating — and often fatal — conditions such as spinal-cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
But with a debate raging about whether stem cells should be harvested from embryos or other sources, even advocates for victims of the conditions do not line up uniformly on the issue.
The National Parkinson’s Foundation, for example, chooses to stay out of the fray — it hasn’t taken a position on stem cells. At the same time, the Alzheimer’s Association supports all kinds of stem-cell research, as does the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) Association.
“We do support any legitimate scientific research that offers the potential of eliminating this horrible disease,” said Sharon Melton, director of programs and services at the Volusia County chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Stem cells are unique because they can be transformed into various other types of specialized cells. Those cells then can be used to repair damaged tissue or organs.
One of the bills would help pay for research that could involve stem cells harvested from embryos that otherwise would be discarded at in-vitro fertilization clinics. Supporters say embryonic stem cells have the most potential to be turned into specialized cells.
“Embryonic stem-cell research is the gold standard,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, a Cooper City Democrat who is sponsoring the bill.
The other bill, which mirrors a proposal by Gov. Charlie Crist, would fund research on stem cells harvested from other sources such as umbilical-cord blood. It would bar the use of the money to pay for embryonic research.
Crist indicated earlier this year he thinks that is the only approach that can gain enough political support to make it through the Legislature.
Though the committee did not choose a side Tuesday, Senate sponsor Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, said lawmakers have plenty of time to resolve the issue.
“This is early,” Haridopolos said. “We’re not even halfway through the session.”
By JIM SAUNDERS and ANNE GEGGIS
news-journalonline.com Staff Writers