Senate Gears Up For Stem Cell Debate

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - The Senate will likely vote this week on a bill to allow stem cell research from frozen embryos.

Senate bill 2015, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), would allow for stem cells to be harvested "from embryos that otherwise would be discarded that have been donated from in-vitro fertilization clinics."

The bill makes it illegal to create embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells, and would make it a crime to pay for embryos for research. However, it does allow for "payments associated with transportation, transplantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage."

Charles Robbins, spokesperson for Specter, said supporters of the legislation have received promises that the bill would be brought to the Senate floor this week. "We think we've got the votes to pass it, but it's still early," said Robbins.

Pro-life and family groups have geared up for a major lobbying effort to defeat the bill. Over the weekend, Catholic bishops throughout the country asked for parishioners to write their senators in an attempt to kill the legislation.

"This would be the first time the government has allowed experimentation on living human embryos. . . . This is gravely wrong," said Joseph Zwelling, spokesperson for the Catholic archdiocese of New York, the largest in the country.

At issue are embryonic stem cells, a type of cell present in very early embryos that generate all the other tissues of the body. Scientists believe those stem cells might be the key to curing diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other degenerative nerve disorders.

The federal government presently bans research that destroys human embryos, which occurs when stem cells are harvested, though new federal guidelines has relaxed those restrictions somewhat.

Richard Doerflinger, a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that the bill will provide incentives to harvest stem cells from aborted fetuses.

"The question is not whether the tissue will be thrown away, but whether the federal government will collaborate with abortion providers," said Doerflinger, also calling the administration's policy "an arrangement with abortion providers that leads to an incentive for abortions" and "gives legitimacy to the practice of abortion."

Last year, in Senate hearings on the proposed funding, Doerflinger said that in recent months researchers have discovered ways to collect stem cells from bone marrow and other sources that do not pose similar ethical problems, all of which show great promise in treating diseases like muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's.