Crist's support may help stem cell bill's chances

Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE — The state would pay for stem cell research, including studies using cells harvested from embryos, under a bill filed Tuesday in the Florida Legislature that may have new hope because of backing from Gov. Charlie Crist.

The proposal has failed before, but its chances may be enhanced this year with the support of Crist, who said Tuesday the issue is one of his budget priorities.

"I think it's important, and we talked about it during the campaign, because of the promise it has for maybe the curing ... of many diseases and maladies that exist for a lot of our citizens," Crist said.

The bill (HB 555), filed by Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, would require the state spend at least $20 million a year for 10 years on grants to researchers doing studies using several different types of stem cells, including adult stem cells, amniotic stem cells and embryonic stem cells, the most controversial type.

Researchers say embryonic stem cells hold the promise of medical breakthroughs because they have the ability to become any tissue in the body. But the research involves the destruction of frozen embryos created for in vitro fertilization, which stirs passionate debates over when life begins. Opponents say embryos are human beings, and it's wrong to destroy them. Supporters counter that embryos that go unused by in vitro fertilization clinics are discarded anyway.

The idea was proposed last year in the Legislature, but failed to get a floor vote. Gov. Jeb Bush had opposed the bill, as had many Republicans in control of the Legislature last year.

Now the idea is personally supported by Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, but he insists he won't push his chamber in any direction over the issue and expressed concern Tuesday that the "political" arguments over embryonic research threatened stem cell research in general.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, opposes the idea. But he, too, has said he won't stand in the way of proposals that gain traction just because he opposes them.

"Speaker Rubio is opposed to state funding of embryonic stem cell research," his spokeswoman, Jill Chamberlin, said Tuesday. But, she said, "bills are heard and decided by the members, who set policies."

Crist, a Republican, may use his bully pulpit to push for the money this year. He acknowledged the issue has split his party, but said he doesn't think the divide is as wide as some perceive.

"There's so many areas and so many things that can be helped by this kind of research and I think caring, compassionate people get that," Crist said. "So I don't think it's going to be facing that much resistance. That's my hope."

Among the opponents of the measure is the Florida Catholic Conference, which supports research using adult stem cells and other cells that aren't harvested from embryos.

"We would still have that concern over the state sanctioning of destroying of live human embryos for research," said Michael Sheedy, a lobbyist for the Catholic Conference.

Embryonic stem cell research is legal — but there is little government money available to finance it. Since 2001 there has been a ban on using federal dollars for deriving new stem cells from fertilized embryos. Earlier this month, the U.S. House voted to restore spending on embryonic stem cell research, but supporters there don't have enough votes to overcome a promised veto by President Bush.

In the meantime, a few states have tried to fill the gap. In 2004, California voters approved a plan to spend about $300 million a year for the next decade on stem cell research. A similar $20 million ballot initiative is being pushed in Florida.

There are still plenty of opponents in the state Legislature.

"I am not in favor of embryonic stem cell research," said Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, one of the top Republican leaders in the Senate. Webster said more progress has been made in the use of adult stem cells, and said that's where policymakers' focus should be.

Advocates for putting state money into the research acknowledge that a single state's money may not make the difference between finding cures and not finding them. The $20 million in the Florida proposal is a relatively small amount.

"It's more the symbolism of it," said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Sarasota Democrat who campaigned in part on the issue this past fall. "It's more important for Florida itself, for economic development, for the ability to attract the best researchers to our universities."

Opponents of destroying embryos have been banking that new findings may soon eliminate the need to do so, citing new research showing that stem cells extracted harmlessly from amniotic fluid have properties similar to embryonic stem cells.

Sands said that there's not enough evidence yet that the amniotic stem cells will be so useful that it would warrant an end to embryonic stem cell research, echoing the sentiments of the Wake Forest University researcher who authored the study that raised the issue.

But the Catholic Conference's Sheedy said, with other types of research showing promise, "the question becomes why do we have to do the kind of research people have such big ethical questions about, that involve destroying human subjects?"

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