Senators hear testimony on stem cell harvest ban

Emotional messages deal with morality, hope for disease cures

September 15, 2000|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - His back hunched and arms twitching from Parkinson's disease, actor Michael J. Fox urged a Senate subcommittee yesterday to remove the last barrier to federal funding for research that he said could turn human stem cells into cures for a variety of afflictions.

"It's time to act on what we have learned," said Fox, who was diagnosed nine years ago at age 31. "Further delay could come at a high price."

A funding bill before Congress was endorsed also by actress Mary Tyler Moore, who said stem cells might someday cure the diabetes that she has battled for 30 years and has nearly robbed her of sight.

But three other witnesses - a quadriplegic and two diabetics - said the use of stem cells derived from human embryos and fetuses is immoral because it exploits one life to benefit another.

Stem cells are the precursors of every specialized cell in the human body, including those that make up bone, blood, nerves and organs. In the past two years, scientists have begun research aimed at using stem cells to replace cells destroyed by various diseases.

These include diabetes, stroke, paralysis, Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's and heart disease.

Last month, the National Institutes of Health lifted a prohibition on federal funding for research into stem cells derived from human embryos.

The rules, while permitting federal grants for research into cells that have already been isolated, do not allow funding for the harvesting of the stem cells themselves.

A bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania would lift that remaining barrier. Yesterday's hearing was the seventh on stem cell research held by the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which he chairs.

Specter and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the bill's co-sponsor, noted that the NIH regulations permit only the use of embryos that otherwise would have been discarded. The embryos are donated by couples enrolled at in-vitro fertilization clinics.

"I would not claim any benefit that I believe was made through harm to another individual," said Fox.

Mary Tyler Moore took on critics who charge that the research amounts the destruction of human life. "These embryos bear about as much resemblance to a human being as to a goldfish," she said. "We're dealing with flesh-and-blood people who feel pain, feel fear. Our obligation is to those people who are here."

But Ron Heagy, a San Diego resident who was paralyzed from the neck down in a surfing accident 20 years ago, said he would like to walk again but not if it means exploiting someone else's life.

"I think this is the beginning of an end, and I'm opposed to it," said Heagy, a motivational speaker who said he tours the country encouraging people to overcome their disabilities.

Some of the day's most emotional testimony came from the Rev. Russell E. Saltzman, a Missouri pastor and diabetic who said his birth was the result of "incest" between step-siblings.

Born in 1946, Saltzman said he cannot help but think that in today's world he would never have been born because his biological mother would have been encouraged to have an abortion.

"And suddenly, it comes to mind that - having been aborted - the fetal parts that were once me might have become research material for somebody's investigation into the very disease I have come here to discuss."

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