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Scientists, senators testify on stem cell research

Yale University's Dr. Diane Krause argued in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research
Yale University's Dr. Diane Krause argued in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research  

By KC Wildmoon

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The debate over embryonic stem cell research took on a more dispassionate tone on Wednesday as scientists and senators testified before a Senate subcommittee on the controversial science.

The staid proceedings lacked the emotional firepower of Tuesday's House subcommittee hearing on the same subject, but the dividing line between those who supported federal funding for the research and those who oppose it was just as clear.

Opponents of the research, like Dr. Richard Dorflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, argued that the idea of the federal government funding such research "is illegal, immoral and unnecessary."

Dorflinger, who opposes embryonic research of any kind, argued that enough private funding was available to support such studies without "forcing U.S. taxpayers to pay for the deliberate destruction of embryos (to obtain stem cells)."

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But proponents, like Dr. Mary Hendrix of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, argued that the research was too important to be left to private researchers, noting that researchers are required to share data when their work is federally funded.

The senators who testified before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee echoed the scientists, with the proponents draping their testimony deep within a mantel of ethical considerations.

"I am absolutely convinced ... that we can address the use of living tissue, of living cells that otherwise would not be used," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, the Senate's only physician. "I believe within an appropriate ethical construct, we can use that tissue to the benefit of hundreds of others, thousands of others, maybe millions of others."

Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, however, took the other side.

"We all on this panel, I believe, all in this room agree that this embryo is alive," Brownback said. "The central question remains, is it a life? Or is it a mere piece of property to be disposed of as its master chooses?"

Differing choices

Both Tuesday's hearing and Wednesday's hearing came as President Bush is considering whether to support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research -- and as the National Institutes of Health released a study supporting it.

Dr. Richard Dorflinger: Federal funding is "illegal, immoral and unnecessary"  

On Tuesday, childless couples who had adopted embryos pleaded against the funding while those with debilitating diseases argued in favor, both playing to the emotions with dramatic presentations.

"Which of my children would you kill?" John Borden, holding his twin sons -- born of adopted embryos implanted in his wife's womb -- asked the members of a House subcommittee.

But Shelbie Oppenheimer, who suffers from ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease, saw the choice differently.

"Mr. President, you are presented with a choice. Your choice is about different things to different people," she said at a news conference before the hearing began. "All viewpoints deserving respect, all viewpoints founded in the love of life. In the life I love here, this is what your decision means to me. You have the choice to be pro-life for an unimplanted frozen embryo that will be discarded or pro-life for me. Members of Congress and President Bush, I am asking you to choose me."

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate's only physician, favors the funding  

Wednesday's hearing lacked the fireworks of the House version, however, partly because the chairman of the Senate subcommittee -- Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa -- and its ranking Republican -- Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- are the co-sponsors of a bill to allow funding of stem cell research.

The subcommittee heard from three senators and six researchers who favored the research and one senator and two doctors who did not.

"Are we on the brink of being able to solve such terrible diseases as Parkinson's, ALS, diabetes, juvenile diabetes, cancer? I think we are," said Brownback. "And I think there's a right route that we can go with this, and I think it's the adult stem cell route that does not have the ethical and moral questions that we have surrounding the embryonic that is also showing a great deal of promise."

'What is a life?'

Dr. Diane Krause of Yale University -- whose studies with adult stem cells have been cited by opponents of embryonic research -- said to bar use of embryonic stem cells simply because adult cell research was showing promise "is to play odds with people's lives."

Krause said she was unhappy that opponents were "using my data to justify this interpretation" and said that adult stem cells simply lacked the versatility of embryonic cells -- and to choose either over the other, while scientists have no idea which will be most beneficial, was shortsighted.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback asked the subcommittee to consider the question: "Is it a life?"  

And Dr. Michael West of Advanced Cell Technologies told the senators that, while he holds staunch pro-life views, he was absolutely in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

Those who argued against it because of a moral stance, he said, may be misusing "information about what is a life."

"Human cells are alive. We know this," he said. "To say there is human life in a sperm cell or an egg cell is correct."

"But these cells have not committed to becoming any cell in the body," he continued. "This cell mass (used to retrieve stem cells) is not individualized. ... Not only are these cells not body cells of any kind, they have not even become individual. To ascribe to unindividualized cells the status of a human is a logical inconsistency."

• Stem Cell Research and Applications
• Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics
• Pro-Life Resource List
• NIH: Stem Cell Information
• NIH Stem Cell Primer

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