Crist OKs stem cell research funds

Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 11:52 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist said Wednesday that he wants the state to spend $20 million on stem cell research in the coming year.

But bowing to political pragmatism, Crist stopped short of pushing a plan for wide-open stem cell research. Instead, he is backing a proposal from House conservatives that would limit the research to existing lines of embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells and stem cells derived from amniotic fluid.

In supporting a bill from Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, which calls for stem cell research that doesn't destroy embryos, Crist acknowledged that he was balancing the concerns of lawmakers with his goal of getting the state started in an innovative research program.

"I want to achieve something," Crist said. "I don't want to send it out there so far that we don't get any research done. To me, that would be horrific."

The governor's proposal also largely follows the guidelines of President George W. Bush, who has opposed the use of any federal funding for research that uses embryonic stem cells that were not in existence prior to August 2001.

Crist acknowledged his proposal may not go as far as he would like to go. But he said it was "a bold first step" in providing state money that could eventually lead to cures for diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's.

"I want to do it in a way that we get something done," he said. "I don't want to just make a political statement."

Critics say the governor's plan may not go far enough since it would eliminate what they contend is the most promising line of research using newer stem cells derived from fertility clinic embryos. And Crist's position represented his first policy rift with Democratic leaders, who helped the governor during the recent special session on property insurance, but who oppose the governor's effort to limit the state's stem cell research.

House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he was "more than a little disappointed" in the governor's proposal, saying he wished Crist had used the power of his office to advocate for a broader research plan.

"I think it was an early retreat," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, is sponsoring a bill that would provide $20 million for embryonic stem cell research. He said he disagreed with Crist's proposal, but he said the governor told him he was still willing to consider other options. But he said limiting the research to existing stem cell lines or cells derived from amniotic fluid would make the research effort largely ineffective.

"There's no point in passing something that really doesn't accomplish anything," Geller said.

Some Democrats also accused Crist of retreating from a campaign pledge to support embryonic stem cell research. But George LeMeiux, the governor's chief of staff who was also his campaign manager, said Crist's proposal is consistent with the position he took in his campaign where he said he would support stem research that was "sensitive to issues of destroying the embryos."

LeMeiux said the governor believes research involving stem cells from amniotic fluid could be as promising as using cells from fertility clinics.

Several conservative groups hailed the governor's announcement. John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council, said Crist "should be praised for his stand which both advances medical research and protects the sanctity of life," he said.

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