Members introduce bills to lift stem-cell restrictions

Fueled by dissatisfaction with federal policies on stem-cell research, members of the House and Senate introduced identical bills yesterday aimed at lifting some current restrictions.

Reps. Michael Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said they have enough votes to pass the bill. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the companion bill in the Senate.

"The current federal embryonic stem-cell research policy is simply not sufficient for the scientists to conduct the research they need to do to find cures and treatments," Castle told a news conference. Specter was ill and did not attend.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 would change the current federal guidelines by allowing research on cells that were originally created for fertility purposes but were not used during the procedure. It also permits individuals who have had fertility treatments to donate the embryos through written consent.

The Senate bill will be referred to the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee (HELP), according to a Harkin spokesman. The House bill will be referred to the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.

Todd Smith, a spokesman for Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), chairman of the House subcommittee, said, "We haven't seen the bill, so I can't really comment on it." Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), chairman of HELP, was not available for comment.

Castle noted that similar legislation he and DeGette introduced last year had 25 original co-sponsors in the House and grew to 206 co-sponsors before it failed to be considered in committee.

"This bill we are introducing today has 156 original co-sponsors," Castle said.

"Last year, we decided to not pursue a scorched-earth kind of approach to passing this legislation because it was an election year," DeGette said. "This year… there is strong bipartisan support in the Congress."

Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), who plans to introduce her own stem-cell bill in the next few weeks, said, "I think if this was put up for a vote without any impediments it would pass overwhelmingly."

Harkin said that the sponsors have not discussed the issue with the White House but that it was discussed last year.

"The president's position on stem-cell research is well-known and unchanged," Ken Lisaieus, a White House spokesman, said yesterday.

Under current federal policy, only those stem cells created before Aug. 9, 2001, qualify for federally funded research. Only 22 of the original 78 stem-cell lines can still be used. However, contamination from mouse cells and a lack of biodiversity may have rendered these cells insufficient for the research that needs to be done, according the sponsors of the bill.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is co-sponsoring the Senate legislation, urged those who oppose stem-cell research to "get over the hurdles, sincere as they may be, as honest as they may be."

He added, "There is no greater way to promote life than to find a way to defeat untimely death and disease. I believe that when my colleagues and the public consider all of the issues, including the ethical questions, that most will reach the conclusion that this bill will advance important science and is consistent with our moral values."

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bill "is an obvious effort to encourage the destruction of new embryos. No patient has ever been helped by stem-cell research and may never be."

He predicted the president would never sign legislation that would expand the research.

"There shouldn't be anything exclusive about which stem cells should be available," said former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), now president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "They should all be available to scientists."