July 16, 2006 in Nation/World

Stem cell issue shows rift among Republicans

Jill Zuckman Chicago Tribune
The Spokesman-Review photo

(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Patients and their families grappling with long-term, debilitating diseases will be watching this week as the Senate debates lifting President Bush’s restrictions on federally funded research using stem cells from embryos that would have otherwise been destroyed through the in-vitro fertilization process.

The House has already passed the politically and emotionally charged legislation and the Senate is expected to follow suit Tuesday, likely prompting Bush to issue the first veto of his presidency.

The debate over the policy has exposed perhaps the most profound split on an issue within the Republican Party during the Bush presidency.

Advocates believe that embryonic stem cell research holds the promise of treatment for a variety of grave ailments, from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases to juvenile diabetes, cancer and spinal cord injuries.

“Every year we delay is another year we’re not getting to find a cure,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “It’s very difficult to justify abandoning 7,000 to 20,000 in-vitro eggs as medical waste.”

But opponents complain that the research is morally wrong, serving only to destroy human life with little promise of providing results.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, calls the research “unethical and ineffective.”

“The results speak for themselves,” Perkins said. “Embryonic stem cell research has produced no successful treatment for human beings, whereas adult stem cell research has produced results for over 70 different medical conditions.”

Scientists at the American Society for Cell Biology, on the other hand, believe that embryonic stem cells are capable of forming all of the different tissue types found in the human body. That could allow for the replacement of damaged and diseased cells and organs, as well as the possibility of testing and developing new drugs.

In 2001, Bush prohibited federally funded research using embryonic stem cell lines derived after Aug. 9 of that year. Scientists have complained that only 22 of the stem cell lines were available for use and that they were of limited genetic diversity.

The stem cell issue has transcended traditional partisan politics, drawing a range of support from both sides of the aisle. Opinion polls show widespread support for the research and such Republican icons as former first lady Nancy Reagan favor it.

Reagan, whose late husband suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, has been calling senators, urging them to support the legislation.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who spoke with Reagan on Wednesday, said she decided to vote for the bill after thinking about it for a long time. She said she was persuaded because it is limited to “embryos that would otherwise be thrown away.”

While most Democrats are expected to support the bill, named for Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Republicans are divided.

Groups on both sides of the debate are blanketing Capitol Hill with informational briefings, phone calls and e-mail messages. And both sides are supremely confident of their views.

“If they listen to the debate, nobody will vote for the (Specter-Harkin) bill,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a physician. “If you look at the science, nobody will vote to spend more federal dollars.”

But Hatch said people who study the issue would have to agree with his support for the research.

Nevertheless, Bush’s veto pen is expected to settle the debate – at least for this year. Neither the House nor Senate is expected to have the votes to override a veto.

And few believe that Bush will change his mind: “I’ve done a lot and I don’t think it’s possible to persuade him,” Specter said.

That throws the issue into the political arena as the two parties compete for control of Congress in the fall elections.

Democrats say they expect that the president’s refusal to sign the legislation could galvanize angry voters hoping for cures to diseases afflicting them and those they care about.

“Since it would be the president’s first veto, I think it would be historic and would certainly have an impact on the next election and on the president’s legacy,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant Democratic leader from Illinois. “He would be the first president in the history of the United Sates to restrict medical research and efforts to reduce disease and suffering.”

The issue already has affected the race between Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, the Democratic challenger who has taken Talent to task for not supporting embryonic stem cell research. Democrats tapped her to deliver their weekly radio address on Saturday focusing on the issue.

In a statement, Talent said he would vote “against the bill that would use tax dollars to fund research that would destroy human life at the earliest stages.” Instead, he said, he would vote for two alternative bills under consideration and he noted that he has previously supported more than $2.2 billion “for adult, umbilical and other types of stem cell research.”

Altogether, the Senate will consider three separate bills over the course of 12 hours. One is the House-passed bill lifting Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research.

Another would promote research that does not include the creation or destruction of embryos, something already allowed under current law. And a third would prohibit so-called “fetal farming,” which is described as growing fetuses for the sole purpose of harvesting tissue.

The last two bills are expected to pass the Senate with near-unanimous support. But the House-passed bill is more controversial, requiring 60 votes to clear the chamber and reach the president’s desk.

“We will work very hard to make it clear that there is one pro-patient, pro-science piece of legislation and that’s the House bill,” said Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, calling the other two measures “irrelevant.”

But opponents say scientific advances don’t require the destruction of embryos in the course of research.

“I believe it’s completely unnecessary,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., citing research using adult and umbilical cord blood cells. “The science has passed this debate by.”

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