WASHINGTON -- The Senate opened an emotional debate yesterday on whether to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, with advocates trying to dramatize the human benefits of the complex procedure and critics underscoring what they see as its moral cost.
The legislation's proponents argued that it could help transform medical science in the United States, with more than 100 million patients potentially benefiting from research that might develop cures or treatments for such conditions as diabetes, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease.
"The debate on embryonic stem cell research is as important as any issue that has ever been before the United States Senate," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and leading proponent of the bill, who noted that his struggle with Hodgkin's disease might have been eased if the research had advanced more quickly.
Critics agree that the stakes are high, but for a far different reason: Because the research involves the destruction of human embryos, it is immoral and should not be financed by the government, they say. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, quoted writer C.S. Lewis, whose work contains Christian themes, in arguing that the procedure is an affront to human dignity: "If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be."
Activists on both sides - scientists and advocates for patients supporting the bill, mostly conservative activists opposing it - mobilized for a lobbying drive before today's final vote on the measure, which would ease restrictions that President Bush imposed in 2001 on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
"A lot of people are twisting a lot of arms today," Specter said.
There was little doubt about the outcome, which is likely to unfold over the next few days. The bill, which the House has already passed, is expected to clear the Senate and go to the White House. Bush is expected to follow through with his pledge to veto the measure - the first veto of his presidency.
Supporters say they probably do not have enough votes to override a veto. A two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate is needed to do so.
Advocates are trying to ratchet up the pressure on the president to sign the legislation. Specter said Bush might receive a personal call from Nancy Reagan, who became an outspoken advocate for stem cell research after her husband, President Ronald Reagan, fell victim to Alzheimer's disease.
But in a statement yesterday, the White House reiterated Bush's veto promise.
While a veto would kill the bill in Congress for this year, proponents are encouraged that support has grown, even in a Republican-controlled Congress.
"This issue is not going away," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "There are some issues you can't get off the national agenda, and this is one of them."
The issue is politically tricky for some Republicans who worry that their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, while applauded by conservative activists, might be viewed by other voters as an obstacle to scientific progress.
To blunt that impression, GOP leaders have arranged to send to Bush two uncontroversial research bills that he will sign at the same time he vetoes the broader bill. One is designed to encourage alternative methods of deriving stem cells without destroying embryos. The other would address fears of some critics that scientists might create "fetal farms," in which fetuses would be grown for their organs and tissues.
Both bills are expected to pass the House and Senate today.
But the central debate is over the cutting-edge research that involves destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells, which are thought to be able to develop into any type of cell in the body. Many scientists believe that such research could lead to cures or treatments for now-incurable ailments.
Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times.