Thursday, January 26, 2006

Back To Stem Cell Research

Congress is back in session with a fairly extensive and noisy agenda: the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court (with the potential of a filibuster and subsequent nuclear option); the development of new ethics rules for members of Congress in the face of the Abramoff scandal; hearings on the Hurricane Katrina disaster (complicated by the White House refusal to release documents); hearings on the legality of the NSA spying on Americans; renewal of the Patriot Act in some form; and immigration reform. While there might be some other legislative activity going on, not much else is being reported in the media. Further complicating matters is the fact that this is an election year and congress critters will be busy covering their backsides at home. It's hard to imagine that something like a reasonable stem cell research bill will be considered this year.

What this means, of course, is that the states will have to take up the slack when it comes to this issue, as they have when it comes to minimum/living wage, immigration, and environmental concerns. Evidence that states are willing to confront the issue can be found in an article in the Washington Post.

Yesterday's hearings on stem cell research in Maryland had a familiar ring: Advocates touted the potential for treating Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes and other conditions, and opponents raised the same ethical objections they made a year ago when lawmakers proposed spending $25 million a year on the emerging science.

But it was a voice legislators did not hear, neither yesterday nor a year ago, that could alter this year's debate -- that of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

After remaining mostly silent on a bill that was killed last year by a Republican-led filibuster threat, Ehrlich (R) is pushing a plan to spend $20 million next year on stem cell research.

But Ehrlich is not committing himself on the question that has stirred the most controversy: whether the money should be used primarily for work on stem cells derived from human embryos or from less controversial adult stem cells.

"The point here is that the decision should be a function of the science. These are fundamentally science questions, not political questions." [said Gov. Ehrlich]

...Under the governor's approach, grants would be made by the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, overseen by a 15-member board appointed by the governor. Although money could still go to embryonic stem cell projects, Stoltzfus said Republicans are more comfortable with the approach.
[Emphasis added]

Clearly I, like most progressives, would prefer that embryonic stem cell projects be the most heavily funded because the science looks more promising in this area than in the adult cell approach and because the Emperor in Chief has cut off federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (for all practical purposes). Governor Ehrlich's proposed plan, however, does look like a doable compromise, if the board appointed by the governor is not stacked to favor the adult stem cell side of the debate. Because Governor Ehrlich was a strong proponent for stem cell research while in Congress, that doesn't seem likely.

Hopefully the Maryland legislature can work out a plan that takes into consideration the science and not just the politics.


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