Assembly gets pressure over stem cell bill

Religious groups at odds over state funding plan

$25 million proposed for study

Support is solid in House

Senate filibuster possible

February 27, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

They walk with canes, their bodies victim to degenerative diseases with no known cure.

For 50-year-old John Kellermann, it's Parkinson's, a ruthless disease that seizes his body and sometimes his speech, leaving him so vulnerable that he has to crawl to the bathroom at night.

For Lois Fish, 61, it's multiple sclerosis, a disease that has ravaged her bladder, eyesight and legs, forcing her to move from a charming, two-level house and take early retirement from the work she so loved.

Both say they believe that embryonic stem cell research - a cutting-edge area of biomedical science - offers their best hope for a cure. Legislation before the Maryland General Assembly would funnel $25 million into such research each year, mirroring a similar effort approved by voters in California last year.

But the push for stem cell research in Maryland has put two of the most politically active religious coalitions - the Maryland Jewish Alliance and Maryland Catholic Conference - on opposite sides of a complex scientific and ethical debate, as lawmakers prepare for hearings this week in Annapolis.

The Maryland Jewish Alliance is making passage of the funding legislation one of its signature priorities this year. Nationally, members of Hadassah, a women's Zionist group, are converging on state capitals across the country Wednesday to promote stem cell research.

"The Jewish community has always felt that people have an obligation to advance medical science and to do what we can to relieve suffering," said David Conn, director of the Maryland Jewish Alliance. "So clearly we see stem cell research as one of the most promising areas of medical research."

But the state's Catholic Conference and Maryland Right to Life chapters adamantly oppose the funding bill, even though it includes a ban on human cloning. Instead, they are pushing for legislation that would also ban therapeutic cloning - a key component of advancing embryonic stem cell research.

"I consider this to be a human rights issue because we're talking about the widespread destruction of human embryos, human life," said Nancy E. Fortier, associate director for justice, pro-life and human rights of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "I do not think that we should take state money and put it into research that so many people find abhorrent."

The differing views could pose a tricky political equation for state lawmakers, as well as for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who are faced with divergent bills with uncertain prospects. Support for the stem cell research bill remains solid in the House, but in the Senate the threat of a filibuster is strong.

"This is really going to be ... a very tough issue," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "I think it could make for a real conflict."

Stem cells have the unique ability to reproduce and develop into different types of specialized cells. Scientists say they believe they can be used to repair missing or damaged cells and tissues, potentially treating or curing dozens of diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Adult stem cell research is funded on the federal level, but some researchers say stem cells drawn from embryos yield more promise.

"The reason science is excited about human embryonic stem cells is they can form any type of cell and they can self-renew ... in the test tube indefinitely," said Dr. Curt I. Civin, a cancer researcher and stem cell biologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Adult stem cells can do neither of these things right now."

The funding of embryonic stem cell research is limited largely to private sources. President Bush restricted the public funding of embryonic stem cell research to existing stem cell lines in 2001.

Now, states are racing to fill the gap - more than a half-dozen of them are in the process of proposing their own investments after California's decision last year to dedicate $3 billion to the research.

Supporters see such legislation as crucial to retaining biotechnology firms. Maryland's approximately 350 biotech companies regularly rank the state among the nation's top five. A few companies conduct significant stem cell research in Maryland. Johns Hopkins University's research includes embryonic stem cells, whereas the University of Maryland does research only on adult stem cells and those drawn from umbilical cords.

"We are in a major biotechnology state," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee, who, with Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, is co-sponsoring the bill to fund stem cell research. "And we have states that have already passed this type of funding. If our scientists can do this research in other states, then we're not going to keep them here."

The controversy lies with the embryos. While some are left over from fertility clinics, others could be created specifically for research.

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