Senate Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Alternative Embryonic Stem Cell Research Legislation
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies on Tuesday held a hearing on legislation (HR 3144) proposed by congressional Republican leaders that would promote new, "unproven" techniques that might allow scientists to retrieve embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos, the New York Times reports. The bill -- introduced in the House by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) -- would authorize federal funding to be used for animal studies that might eventually allow scientists to create human embryonic stem cells without the use of human embryos (Stolberg, New York Times, 7/13).
No companion measure has been introduced in the Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and other senators are expected to introduce a similar bill with the backing of the Bush administration, CQ Today reports (Schuler, CQ Today, 7/12).
Frist is promoting the legislation as a compromise measure between the Bush administration's current policy limiting federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research and the House-approved Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 (HR 810/S 471) (New York Times, 7/13).
The current embryonic stem cell research policy allows federal funding for the research only when the cells are extracted from stem cell lines created on or before Aug. 9, 2001, the date that President Bush announced the policy. HR 810, which the House approved in May, would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and allow research using stem cells derived from embryos originally created for fertility treatments and willingly donated by patients. Bush has threatened to veto the measure (California Healthline, 5/26).
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) also said the alternative bills might "solve the ethical constraints" associated with embryonic stem cell research. Supporters of the new measure say that Frist and others crafted the legislation hoping to find a bill that expands current funding for the research and also is supported by Bush (New York Times, 7/13).
However, some observers say the proposal is an attempt to defeat HR 810 (Vergano, USA Today, 7/13).
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on Tuesday expressed concern that the multiple stem cell-related bills could be used to provide political cover to lawmakers who want to avoid controversy. "If this becomes a political game, then we all lose," he said, adding that Frist "has to try and please everybody, but the way I've heard it set up is causing some angst among the members" (Klein, Boston Globe, 7/13).
Supporters of HR 810 last week said the measure would easily pass the Senate, perhaps with the two-thirds majority necessary to override a Bush veto. However, on Tuesday, they said the vote likely will be close, and the bill could be defeated, the Los Angeles Times reports (Curtius, Los Angeles Times, 7/13).
Frist is expected to bring to a vote in the Senate as many as six stem cell-related bills as soon as next week (New York Times, 7/13). Among the additional measures is a bill that would promote the use of stem cells extracted from umbilical cord blood (S 1317), legislation that would ban all forms of human cloning (S 658) and a bill that would ban the creation of chimeras, organisms created by introducing non-human cells into human embryos (S 659) (CQ Today, 7/12).
It is unclear if any of the alternative bills would prevent passage of HR 810 or if senators could approve all of the bills, thereby supporting research into alternative methods of stem cell research while also expanding funding for established research methods, the Post reports. A unanimous consent agreement that would combine bills is being considered, but Frist has not said which measures might be included, according to Frist spokesperson Nick Smith (Weiss, Washington Post, 7/13).
During Tuesday's hearing, supporters of HR 810 said Congress should pass the legislation to allow additional funding for embryonic stem cell research before considering legislation to promote alternatives, the AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports.
"I'm all for these alternative sources. ... Let's go ahead and pursue them. But we already know how to derive stem cells," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) -- who is a sponsor of HR 810 -- said (Kellman, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 7/13).
Scientists and ethicists at the hearing also debated whether the alternative methods would be effective. In addition, Ronald Green, director of the Dartmouth College Ethics Institute, said some of the proposed techniques promote the creation of impaired forms of human life for the purpose of destroying them, which conceivably could lead to developing "babies without brains as sources of organs for transplantation," according to the Post (Washington Post, 7/13).