Stem cell bill limits rejected

House members defeat series of amendments sponsored by the GOP

General Assembly


Lawmakers in the House of Delegates handily defeated a series of Republican-sponsored amendments yesterday that would have limited the scope of a bill to spend $25 million yearly on stem cell research.

A final vote on the bill is scheduled for tomorrow, and based on the margins by which the amendments were voted down yesterday, it is expected to pass.

A similar Senate proposal will be debated this week or next, but it will face a tougher battle. Senate Democrats are working feverishly before the bill hits the floor to secure enough votes to avoid a filibuster.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that he does not think he has the 29 votes required to end a filibuster.

"This bill's a moving target," Miller said. "There are a lot of forces in play."

The Senate proposal, which like its House counterpart would ban human cloning, would establish a process for reviewing stem cell research proposals, but it does not require state funding.

Meanwhile, five amendments to the House bill, which would provide $25 million annually for projects including embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, were voted down yesterday by the full House. All failed by an approximately 2-to-1 margin.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland, attempted to eliminate a provision in the bill that would give priority to embryonic stem cell research, which uses the cells of embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics. Religious conservatives equate the practice with abortion, and the question of when life begins has been a central point in their opposition to the bill.

"Let projects compete on their merits," O'Donnell said, referring to research proposals using embryos and adult stem cells.

Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Health and Government Operations Committee, which first passed the legislation, explained that the bill gives priority to embryonic research because it is not funded at the federal level. President Bush restricted funding in 2001 to existing stem cell lines. Federal money can be used for adult stem cell research.

"We took a step back; we said let's include adult stem cell research but at the same time we do not want to duplicate what is already funded at the federal level," Hammen said.

Del. Herbert H. McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, proposed an amendment yesterday that would have removed an annual funding requirement from the bill. He said the legislature should not require state funding, and he called the bill in its current form not "fiscally, socially or scientifically responsible."

"This legislative spending mandate digs the financial ditch that we are in deeper," McMillan said.

Hammen said the state needs to make an investment in a burgeoning area of research. "If we're willing to put the policy up, we should be willing to put the money up," he said.

An amendment also failed to strike embryonic research from the bill.

Many scientists believe that stem cell research -- particularly embryonic stem cell research because the cells take on the properties of dozens of other cells in the body -- could lead to treatments or cures for a number of debilitating diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has entered the debate for the first time this year with a proposal to commit $20 million for stem cell research and $13.5 million for a new research center in Baltimore. He has said that he does not believe legislation is necessary and that his budget plan is the best way to tackle the issue. Yesterday, he called on lawmakers not to cut from his funding proposal.

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