The Senate debate on HR 810 was dominated on one side by Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the two Senators who introduced the legislation to the body, and on the other side of the aisle by Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Sam Brownback (R-KS).

The opposition fought the war on HR 810 on two fronts: ethical and scientific. 

Coburn led the charge on the science front, emphasizing the successes of adult stem cell research and the possibility of rejection of tissue created from embryonic stem cells.

“When you hear all the talk about embryonic stem cell research, the thing to remember is when you get the treatment, you’re going to have the side effects that everybody else that has a transplant [has] if it works,” he said. “The only way not to have that is to do fetal farming, or human cloning, where you clone yourself and then take part of what you clone back, which we already know is illegal.”

Brownback championed the ethical position. He showed the Senate a poster that depicted four embryos, each with an arrow pointing to the face of Mother Teresa, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King or Ronald Reagan.

“Everybody on the Earth was a human embryo at some time. If I destroy that human embryo, do I somehow go ahead and get to be here anyway?” he asked. “And the answer of course…is no.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) spoke at length in favor of the resolution. Frist, a pro-life medical doctor who announced last year that he would support expanded funding for stem cell research, said it is important that Congress address the issue of embryonic stem cells head-on, because the interplay between science and ethics will be a leading force in the next century.

“We must participate in defining research surrounding the culture of life,” Frist said. “If not, it will define us.”

Supporters of the bill spoke of the inadequacy of the current policy, noting the lack of diversity in the current stem cell lines and the contamination by mouse feeder cells. The FDA has stated that it would be very wary of any therapies derived from a contaminated line. Supporters also emphasized the ethical requirements outlined, noting that all of the embryos destroyed for research under the bill would have been already designated for destruction. 

Harkin cited a May 2006 poll by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research showing that 72% of Americans support embryonic stem cell research. He said he spoke with 19 heads of NIH institutes and all said that embryonic stem cells offer enormous potential.

“The evidence of the utility of these embryonic stem cells is unquestioned, and the need for more stem cell lines, similarly, is unquestioned,” said Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), who introduced the bill along with Harkin.

The Senate unanimously passed two other bills: S. 2754, which requires the NIH to fund research on alternative methods of creating stem cells, and S. 3504, which bans “fetal farming,” the solicitation or acceptance of tissue from fetuses created solely for the purpose of research. Bush had already announced that he would sign both of these into law.

Originally published July 20, 2006


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