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Stem Cell Debate Rages on Capitol Hill


WebMD Health News

July 17, 2001 (Washington) -- As President George W. Bush agonizes over funding stem cell research with federal dollars, emotion and science continue to tightly intertwine in the national debate over the controversial research.

Today, supporters and opponents of federal funding for the cutting-edge embryonic stem cell studies took to Capitol Hill, sparing nothing in their lobbying.

At a press conference today, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, which supports the research, highlighted an ad featuring a young diabetic girl for whom the research is the "best hope for a cure."

Meanwhile, at a congressional hearing, John Borden, the father of twins born from "adopted embryos" -- embryos thawed from in vitro storage and implanted in his wife's womb -- held his children up in front of lawmakers and asked, "Which one of my children would you choose to kill?"

In early 1999, the Clinton administration had decided that taxpayer dollars could be used to fund research into human embryonic stem cells. These "blank" cells hold the potential to specialize into all manner of cells.

Manipulating stem cells to treat disease beckons desperate individuals of all political stripes who suffer from Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, and a host of other diseases with no cure. The ailments, it is hoped, could conceivably be battled and even cured with supplies of healthy new cells derived from stem cells.

But obtaining embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of the frozen "excess" in vitro embryos created by and for couples seeking infertility treatments. Therein lies the crux of the debate.

Destroying embryos is unacceptable to pro-life activists and the Catholic Church, who argue that funding the research is morally unacceptable. They argue that destroying an embryo is the same as taking a human life.

Instead, these activists call for limited funding of non-embryonic stem cells. They claim that promising advances with stem cells taken from adult tissue or from umbilical cords warrant federal funding.

Most scientists say that early research indicates that embryonic cells hold the most promise, because they could be more easily obtained and can be multiplied easily.

There are an estimated 100,000 leftover frozen embryos, which already can be legally discarded.

For now, Bush has blocked any funding on stem cells until he makes a final decision; he is expected to announce his move later this month.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who supports the embryonic research, said, "This is an excellent opportunity for the president, having fully established his conservative credentials, to establish his compassionate credentials."

But Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who chaired the House stem cell hearing today, said, "We must not ignore or rationalize the tremendous moral questions posed by destroying living human embryos."

Nonetheless, some well-known Republicans including former First Lady Nancy Reagan and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) are urging that the research be funded.

Meanwhile, a reproductive institute based in Norfolk, Va., has said it is creating human embryos only for the purposes of stem cell research. And prominent U.S. stem cell researcher Roger Pedersen has announced plans to move to Great Britain, where scientists are allowed greater freedom to pursue stem cell research.

According to a new Roy Morgan International poll, most Americans back the use of stem cells from human embryos for medical research.

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