Frist Backs Funding of Stem Cell Research
Senator Supports Bill Expanding Embryonic Stem Cells Available for Federal Funding
Ethical Concerns Remain
Frist said he would support a reversal of the policy but warned that he had "significant" concerns with ethical guidelines in the bill. The legislation does not go far enough to prevent clinics from selling embryos to scientists or to specify who has the final say over the implantation of donated embryos, he said.
Those concerns could lead to a "substantial rewriting" of the bill, Frist said.
Still, stem cell supporters reacted with glee to Frist's speech. "Today the majority leader puts principles above politics," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a sponsor of the stem cell expansion bill.
Rep. Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.), who celebrated a birthday Friday, was an author of the bill in the House, where it passed 238-194 in May. "Sen. Frist just gave me the very best birthday present I've ever gotten," she said.
At the same time, the announcement shocked those conservatives who strongly back Bush's limits.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who opposes embryonic stem cell research, said he was "disappointed" by Frist's remarks. "He concedes [an embryo is] human life but in a utilitarian view we should go ahead and get something out of this," he said.
"Sen. Frist is a good man but he is simply advocating a bad policy," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
Announcement's Effects Unclear
Frist, in addition to serving as Republican leader in the Senate, also carries significant weight with colleagues on health and medical issues because of his experience as a heart transplant surgeon. Many senators said in interviews that his support could convince some wavering colleagues to vote for the bill.
But it remained unclear what effect the move would have on the debate. The bill has languished for weeks as senators failed to agree on whether to debate the bill alone or together with at least six other bills addressing cloning, new stem cell technologies, and other issues.
Stem cell supporters have demanded a vote on their measure alone, while opponents wanted to add debate on the other issues. Frist has sided with opponents on the issue and Friday signaled no willingness to deviate from that strategy.