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Politicians are forcing stem cell showdown in Senate

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The Senate is headed for a volatile showdown with the White House over the issue of stem cell research in a debate that could also put Missouri’s tight U.S. Senate race in the spotlight.

Under pressure from Democrats, Senate GOP leaders agreed to hold a vote this week on long-stalled legislation that would undo President George W. Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The debate, to start on Monday with votes set for Tuesday, will revive one of the most contentious issues facing lawmakers as they head into the November elections. And it could prompt Bush to use his veto power for the first time in his six-year tenure.

The vote will have particular resonance in Missouri, where a state initiative to protect embryonic stem cell research has already divided the GOP and fueled a sharp debate between Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and his likely Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill.

The Senate confrontation will come over three bills. The most contentious proposal, which has already passed the House, would overturn restrictions Bush put in place in 2001 limiting federal money for stem cell research to cells taken from embryos that had already been destroyed.

The second bill is a Republican-backed alternative that would call on the National Institutes of Health to fund research into creating pluripotent stem cell lines, similar to embryonic lines, without destroying human embryos. Pluripotent stem cells can give rise to any type of cell in the body except those needed to develop a fetus.

The third bill would ban the use of tissue from fetuses created for research purposes, which scientists say is not being done now or even contemplated.

All three bills will come to a vote as a package, but the attention and controversy is focused on the first proposal to nix Bush’s stem cell policy.

The issue is emotionally charged on both sides. Proponents, including former First Lady Nancy Reagan, say embryonic stem cell research has the potential to lead to cures for a wide range of debilitating diseases, from Alzheimer’s to diabetes to Parkinson’s.

American scientists say they’re losing ground under Bush’s policy to their counterparts overseas who have access to more promising avenues of research in this cutting-edge field. And supporters note that research is conducted on unused embryos from fertility clinics.

Larry Soler, a lobbyist with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said the question was whether those left-over embryos were “going to be used for medical waste or used for research to try to save lives and cure diseases.”

But opponents, led by abortion-rights foes, say the research is immoral because it requires destroying human embryos. They say alternatives, including work on adult stem cells, holds equal promise without the ethical quandary.

“We were all an embryo at one point, and we ought to as a society be very careful about … the wanton destruction of embryos, of life,” presidential adviser Karl Rove told a Denver newspaper last week in reaffirming Bush’s threat to veto any measure that expands federal support for the research.

That sharp debate will play out against a politically treacherous backdrop: battle for control of the Senate.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said it was too early to tell how the issue would play politically.

“We are very much in uncharted territory,” Duffy said. For some Republicans, a vote in favor of expanding stem cell research is a chance to play to the middle and show independence from Bush. But passage of the bill could also further dishearten the GOP’s conservative base, she said.

As for the Democrats, most support expanding stem cell research, and they see it as a wedge issue that divides moderate Republicans from social conservatives. They have been pushing aggressively for this week’s debate, something Duffy said they were doing in large part because they saw the issue playing out to McCaskill’s benefit in Missouri.

“They take all that belief (that stem cell is a political winner) from what they’ve watched in Missouri,” she said. “You can put a more sympathetic human face on (expanding stem cell research) than you can against it.”

Among local lawmakers, Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, both D-Ill., have signed on as co-sponsors to the House-passed bill. And as the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Durbin helped engineer this week’s legislative debate.

This bill “would end the restrictions that have kept stem cell research from fulfilling its potential to save lives and alleviate suffering,” Durbin and other Democratic leaders wrote in a letter to Frist last week.

A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans consider embryonic stem cell “morally acceptable,” matching similar results from a year ago. As in Missouri, the issue has divided Republicans in Washington, with GOP senators such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah., in favor of expanded stem cell research and others, including Talent and Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., opposing it.

In Missouri, Talent surprised abortion opponents earlier this year when he withdrew his support for a ban on human cloning that critics said would have also banned embryonic stem cell research. Talent outlined what he called a compromise proposal promoting research into a process called “altered nuclear transfer,” in which a cell is genetically altered so it can’t develop into an embryo.

Talent also came out against the state effort, saying it “would make cloning human life at the earliest stage a constitutional right.”

The upcoming Senate debate will highlight Talent’s position and the divide between him and McCaskill on the issue. Indeed, Senate Democrats tapped McCaskill to deliver this week’s radio response to Bush and her chosen topic is stem cell research.

McCaskill strongly supports embryonic stem cell research and has criticized Talent for shifting his position. In her address, she urges listeners to call their senators and press for a yes vote.

“There are thousands of surplus eggs in fertility clinics in this nation that will be thrown away,” McCaskill says in the address, according to prepared text. “Shouldn’t we instead use them to value the life of a man with sickle cell anemia, a child with juvenile diabetes, or a woman paralyzed from a spinal cord injury?”

Talent shrugged off questions about the political fallout for him and repeated his opposition to expanding embryonic stem cell research.

“I don’t want to cross the line into taxpayer funding of research that involves the destruction of human life,” Talent said.

For his part, Bond has until now said little on this sensitive subject. In a brief interview last week, Bond said he would vote against expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, saying that “goes too far.”

Bond said he was “concerned about providing federal funding for a procedure that a very significant number of Missourians … feel is abhorrent.” He noted the president’s policy does not stop privately funded research on embryonic stem cells. (Bond said he still had not made a decision about how he would vote on the state initiative.)

Both Bond and Talent said they would support the alternative bill, sponsored by Pennsylvania’s two GOP senators, Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, that would encourage federally supported research into creating stem cell lines without destroying human embryos.

With the House bill facing an almost-certain veto, Santorum said recently, “we can at least begin to develop alternatives that may be promising in the future.” Santorum, like Talent, is facing a tough re-election battle.

Critics say Santorum’s bill is nothing more than a political fig leaf, designed as election-year cover for Republicans who want to vote in favor of some stem cell research.

“It is of little or no value in this debate,” said Durbin, pointing to testimony from a top official of the National Institutes of Health that the bill would not give scientists new authority.

But Talent and others said it could lead to even better cures than embryonic research. “It really holds the potential to allow us to do all the research that science wants to do without any moral qualms,” Talent said.

In next week’s anticipated debate, each bill will need 60 votes to pass. Although the political fall-out is uncertain, most observers say the legislative outcome is not.

The Senate is expected to pass the House bill unraveling Bush’s restrictions, prompting the promised veto. The House doesn’t appear to have enough “yes” votes to override the president, so his policy limiting embryonic stem cell research will probably remain intact.

Stem cell proponents say they are holding out hope that the president will change his mind, noting that it would be his first veto. But Rove and other White House aides have said clearly that Bush will not back down.

By Deirdre Shesgreen

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