WASHINGTON - Less than a year after similar legislation died in Congress, lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill in both chambers yesterday that would promote embryonic stem cell research to help find cures for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's.
The legislation would expand the number of stem cell lines derived from unused in vitro embryos that are available for federally funded research. Under current federal policy, only stem cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001, are eligible for federal funds, but the bill's authors said that most of the 22 available stem cell lines have been contaminated with mouse cells and are of little use to researchers.
Stem cell research has been a contentious issue for most of President Bush's first term. It has pitted advocates such as Nancy Reagan and the late actor Christopher Reeve, who see the research as the best hope to cure many lethal diseases, against opponents who say using embryos for research equates to killing.
Democrats and moderate Republicans have called on the president to expand the research, but he has refused to lift existing restrictions. Recently, some states such as California have taken the matter into their hands by increasing state funding and setting up research facilities.
"One hundred million Americans touched by a disease may one day be helped by embryonic stem cell research," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican and one of the bill's sponsors. "The current embryonic stem cell research policy is simply not sufficient for the scientists that conduct the research ... to find cures and treatments."
Castle said the bill enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and noted a poll released Tuesday by the Civil Society Institute showing that 63 percent of Americans back embryonic stem cell research. But he acknowledged that Bush must be "persuaded" to change his policy.
Last year, Castle and Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, did not put a similar bill up for vote on the House floor because of concerns that the issue would interfere with the presidential campaign. Castle said the high number of co-sponsors - 156 now compared with 25 when the bill was introduced last year - was a reason to be optimistic for the bill's prospects in the House.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican, said federal funds can be used to conduct research on adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood and embryonic material from miscarriages "without destroying human life." An anti-abortion obstetrician-gynecologist, Gingrey expressed confidence that the bill would not become law.
"I remain firmly opposed to changing the president's policy," he said, but "should this bill pass, I think the president would veto it."
The bill stipulates that embryos could be used for federally funded stem cell research regardless of the date of their creation, but only embryos originally created for fertility treatment could be used. It also asks for the beneficiaries of the treatment to provide written consent for embryo donation.
While federal funding has been limited, some states have increased their support for stem cell research significantly in hopes of attracting eminent scientists and private investment.