Attempting to make a bill to fund stem cell research more politically palatable, the two Democratic sponsors say they will amend the legislation to limit state funding for research to embryos that already exist - a move not likely to allay concerns from those with religious and ethical objections.
The bill would funnel $25 million a year to stem cell research, funding that proponents say is needed because of federal restrictions on a science they believe could provide cures for dozens of diseases.
With committee hearings set for today in the state Senate and House of Delegates, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg say they intend to change the bill to fund only embryonic research conducted on embryos left over at fertility clinics.
The bill would exclude funding where embryos are created specifically for research, a process commonly referred to as therapeutic cloning.
Hollinger, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and Rosenberg said they hope the change will ease passage of the bill and increase the likelihood of support from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has taken no position on the legislation.
"The fact is, why would somebody prefer having these embryos discarded in a trash can when they could be helping real human beings?" said Hollinger.
"There's only so much money, so there's no reason why it shouldn't be limited to an area where everyone can be comfortable," she added.
But the proposed changes will not quell opposition from the Maryland Catholic Conference or some opposing senators, who say they might have enough votes for a filibuster.
"Why should we continue to throw money at this thing which doesn't work when you have ethical research - adult stem cell research - that does?" asked Nancy E. Fortier, associate director for justice, pro-life and human rights of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "When private companies don't want to fund this risky research, why should the state fund it?"
Said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican from Baltimore and Harford counties: "They're living, human embryos. Certainly the bill is made worse by the cloning of embryos, but this is not a vote on cloning. This is a vote on the use of living, human embryos."
The Rosenberg and Hollinger bill would use money from the state's tobacco settlement to provide $25 million a year to private and public institutions conducting stem cell research, with preference given to proposals not eligible for federal funding, starting in 2007.
A diverse group of supporters and opponents of the bill - ranging from religious groups to scientists to residents with diseases who stand to benefit from the research - is expected to testify at the hearings today.
The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, which conduct the bulk of stem cell research conducted in the state, are not taking a position on the bill as institutions. Several researchers from Hopkins, however, will testify in support of it.
Ehrlich remains noncommittal. As a congressman, he supported President Bush's 2001 restriction of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to existing stem cell lines.
"The governor will continue to reserve judgment until a bill reaches his desk, if in fact that does happen," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "It's an important issue that deserves a healthy debate, and he will reserve judgment until the appropriate time."
Stem cells have the ability to reproduce and develop into different types of cells and can potentially be used to repair missing or damaged cells and tissues.
A California voter-approved measure to give $3 billion to funding the research has led to more than half a dozen other states this year to push for their own investments. Many lawmakers fear that they will lose biotechnology companies and researchers to California.
But Paul Mauritz, the state's assistant secretary for business development and technology strategy, said he is not concerned about biotechnology companies leaving the state.
"It's still a nascent industry," said Mauritz. "I'm not convinced that throwing money at stem cell research is what's necessary today."
The bill would make reproductive cloning a felony, but opponents say it doesn't go far enough.
An alternative bill, supported by the Maryland Catholic Conference, would prohibit all human or therapeutic cloning. Another bill in the House would dedicate $25 million solely to adult stem cell research.
Members of Families for Stem Cell Research, a grass-roots statewide coalition formed to lobby for the bill, said though they prefer the original legislation, they will back whatever support the state can give.
"I would prefer it to be more inclusive because I would like to see all of the research explored," said Margaret Conn Himelfarb of Baltimore, who is spearheading the coalition. "But I think that it's important to proceed."
Dr. Curt I. Civin, a professor of cancer research at Hopkins' Kimmel Cancer Center who conducts stem cell research, said it helps those like him who are looking for support for what they believe could be ground-breaking research.
"It doesn't equal California, but it's halfway there and I think that's good," he said.