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House to Consider Relaxing Stem Cell Research Limits


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Congress may be preparing to challenge President Bush's policy on stem cell research. Since 2001, the president has restricted research that can receive federal funding. Now some lawmakers are asking if the president drew the ethical and moral lines in the right place. Yesterday, Senator John McCain told ABC that several factors persuaded him to favor expanded funding, including a former first lady.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): One was Nancy Reagan, who has enormous effect on all of us and others looking into the issue. I think we need to expand it, but I think we've got to be very, very careful that we don't in any way get into cloning.

INSKEEP: The House votes soon on these restrictions, despite the possibility of the first veto since President Bush took office. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

The president set the policy on August 9th, 2001. It allows federal funding of embryonic stem cell research but only on cell lines that were already in existence on that date. At the time, it appeared there would be dozens of lines available to scientists, but says Delaware Republican Congressman Michael Castle, that didn't happen.

Representative MICHAEL CASTLE (Republican, Delaware): Because some are in foreign countries and others didn't work out, it's gotten down to about 20 or 21 or 22.

ROVNER: So Castle and Colorado Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette launched what's turned into a multiyear effort to expand the availability of federal funding for embryonic stem cells. Scientists say the cells show tremendous promise for treating diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer's because they can turn into any cell in the human body. But Congresswoman DeGette says their bill is about more than just making additional embryonic stem cell lines available, it's also about setting rules for how that research should be conducted both in the public and in the private sector.

Representative DIANA DeGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): We also established a clear ethical framework for the research which does not exist now.

ROVNER: Including stipulating that the cells come only from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. But opponents of the bill say it can never be ethical to kill a human embryo. Congressman Mike Pence is a Republican from Indiana and he says the legislation isn't necessary because embryonic stem cell research is already happening, just mostly without federal money.

Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): The debate is over whether or not millions of Americans who believe that human life is sacred, even at the embryonic level, should be--should have their tax dollars taken to do that, which they would find morally offensive.

ROVNER: The opposition to the bill is led by Florida Republican congressman and physician David Weldon. He says advocates of embryonic stem cell research are giving people with dread diseases false hope.

Representative DAVID WELDON (Republican, Florida): If I'm taking care of somebody with Alzheimer's disease, am I to say to the spouse that the greatest hope is 20 to 30 years down the road? I don't think so. I think there are better options available for us today.

ROVNER: But the bill's sponsor, Michael Castle, says he thinks it's more unethical not to fund the research.

Rep. CASTLE: It may be seven, eight or 10 years before anything can actually help a human being, but if we can help that human being one day sooner or one month sooner or one year sooner, we should do it now.

ROVNER: That attitude appears to be spreading, even to some lawmakers who call themselves pro-life. The Senate version of the bill, for example, is sponsored by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who in the 1980s led the fight to amend the Constitution to ban abortion. Now he's arguing embryonic stem cell research is not an abortion issue.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): The fact is I have never believed that human life begins in a Petri dish. And as I travel across my home state of Utah, more and more Utahans, whether they are pro-life or not, come up to me and say, `Orrin, we're with you on this. You're doing the right thing. We have to take care of our families.'

ROVNER: House Republican Michael Castle agrees with Hatch that embryonic stem cell research isn't about abortion.

Rep. CASTLE: You are talking about an embryo which has not been implanted in the womb of a woman. You are talking about an embryo which is going to be discarded as hospital waste if it's not used for research in all likelihood. Therefore, it's not going to become a life anyhow.

ROVNER: In fact, Castle says he thinks that growing public support for embryonic stem cell research, not to mention 200 co-sponsors for his bill, is why the House leadership agreed to give him a vote.

Rep. CASTLE: And I think the leadership understood that if we don't have a vote on it at some point and resolve it that way, they're going to hear about it as an amendment to a lot of other legislation, including appropriation bills. And they just wanted to deal with it straight up and be done with it.

ROVNER: But another factor that prompted the leadership to move the bill was likely the fact that Castle and some of his moderate Republican allies threatened in March to vote against the budget resolution. Their support ultimately passed the measure by the slimmest of margins. The stem cell vote is expected sometime between now and Memorial Day.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.