Pro-Life Dems Face Tough Ride on Embryonic Research

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

(Correction: mistakenly included Rep. Jason Altmire on a list of pro-life Democrats who campaigned against embryonic stem cell research. Altmire opposes abortion, but he supports expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.)

( - With Congress set to vote Thursday on legislation to increase funding for embryonic stem cell research, many observers of the debate are wondering how newly elected pro-life Democrats will vote on the issue.

The bill introduced Friday is identical to H.R. 810. That measure was passed last year but vetoed by President Bush who opposes stem cell research that requires human embryos which are killed in the process.

In 2001, Bush limited federal funding of the research to a small number of then existing embryonic stem cell (ESC) lines.

Proponents of the research say the cells hold exciting potential for future treatment for injuries and diseases, but because obtaining the cells requires the destruction of early-stage embryos, the work is controversial.

The bill requires that stem cells are derived from embryos that have been created during in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment and are considered excess and unwanted by the parents, who must give written consent and not be paid for the donation.

Many ESC research supporters say as these embryos will be destroyed anyway, it would be wrong not to use them in the research.

"We are picking up momentum in the House," Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who introduced the bill, said during a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday. "The Senate is [also] taking up the issue, and again, we are picking up momentum in the Senate.

"This November's elections showed there is strong public support," DeGette added. "We picked up a number of members of the House who ran on stem cell research."

She also said new members of Congress were "passionate" about the issue.

"We have the votes. We have the support of the public. What we need to do now is fund this research," DeGette said.

In November, six pro-life Democrats who campaigned against ESC research were elected to Congress. They are Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Reps. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Charlie Wilson of Ohio, and Chris Carney of Pennsylvania.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said these Democrats would face a lot of pressure and "have to be very careful."

"Their Democratic voters would overwhelmingly support [the bill]," he told Cybercast News Service. "But, there were a lot of pro-life conservatives who crossed over in 2006.

"If they alienate the moderate conservatives, they could be in trouble," Sabato said. "Those gains could be gone by 2008.

"If I was in their position, I would fulfill my campaign promises," he advised.

'Protecting a cell'

Lori Lipman Brown, director of the humanist lobbying group Secular Coalition for America, said she hoped pro-life lawmakers would not go so far as to want to protect what she described as "a cell."

Brown told Cybercast News Service she believed members of Congress would vote in line with "their own feelings."

Speaking specifically about Casey, she added, "Now that he's in the Senate he'll have more information about it. Maybe he'll change his mind. Not because of party pressure but because of compassion [for patients who may someday benefit from stem cell treatments.]

"I don't think his constituents will hold that against him," she said.

But Sigrid Fry-Revere, director of Bioethics Studies at the Cato Institute, said pro-life Democrats "are going to face significant pressure from the right if they vote for any form of stem cell research funding that involves embryonic stem cells."

"They would probably face less resistance if they limited the funding to adult and amniotic stem cell research," he told Cybercast News Service.

Scientists at Wake Forest University reported in recent days that stem cells capable of forming many different kinds of tissue can be obtained from amniotic fluid and would therefore not destroy embryos.

"The fear the right would have about stem cells obtained from amniotic fluid is that woman might be encouraged to have amniocentesis just so that researchers can have access to more amniotic stem cells," Fry-Revere said. "Every amniocentesis carries a slight risk of inducing a miscarriage, i.e. an abortion."

Nonetheless, many see amniotic stem cells as a potential solution. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) introduced a bill Tuesday - as an alternative to DeGette's - that authorizes federal funding for research involving stem cells from sources other than embryos.

"As a pro-life OB-GYN physician, I know we don't have to sacrifice human life in order to research ways to save it," said Gingrey in a statement. "Our bill allows Congress to side-step the moral questions surrounding embryonic stem cell research.

"In America, we do things the right way. We don't take organs from death row prisoners because they are 'going to die anyway.' Neither should we steal the life of a fertilization clinic embryo just because there's a chance it won't be used to impregnate a woman," he said.

But Dr. Anthony Atala, the Wake Forest scientist who discovered the potential uses for amniotic stem cells, sent a letter to Congress Tuesday saying the research should not be used to promote the argument against expanding funding for ESC research.

"I understand that some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion," Atala wrote. "It is essential that National Institute of Health-funded researchers are able to fully pursue embryonic stem cell research as a complement to research into other forms of stem cells."

See Earlier Story:
New Discovery Stokes Debate Ahead of Dems' Stem Cell Bill (Jan. 8, 2007)

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