New York Times: Stem Cell Debate in House Has Two Faces, Both Young

Published: July 18, 2001

Correction Appended

Nine months old and fidgeting in their parents’ arms, Luke and Mark Borden, twins from California who were adopted when they were still embryos in frozen storage at a fertility clinic, came to the Capitol today to help in a campaign urging President Bush not to permit federal financing of stem cell research that destroys human embryos.

Their father, John, held the boys up before a packed hearing in the House of Representatives and asked his wife, Lucinda, to display a picture of three tiny balls of cells: their sons as embryos in a Petri dish, along with a third embryo that did not survive to birth. “Which one of my children would you kill?” Mr. Borden asked pointedly. “Which one would you take?”

Slender and ponytailed, Mollie and Jackie Singer, 12-year-old twins from Las Vegas who describe themselves as devout Roman Catholics, came to the Capitol to urge President Bush to take the opposite position. Dressed identically in turquoise sweater sets and black skirts, they clutched notes written in careful print as they spoke before the same lawmakers as the Bordens.

Mollie has diabetes, and Jackie says she wants stem cell research to spare her sister the debilitating effects of the disease.

“Since Mollie was 4 years old I’ve watched her struggle with diabetes,” Jackie said. “It’s so hard.”

So it went in the passionate fight over embryonic stem cell research in Washington today, with advocates on both sides of the issue using dueling images to put a human face on a question that has vexed the Bush administration: whether it is appropriate to use taxpayer money to conduct experiments that might save human life when those experiments, in the view of opponents, require the destruction of human life.

As President Bush weighs a decision, the issue is heating up in Congress. Representatives Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, and David Weldon, Republican of Florida, both of whom are opposed to the research, presided over today’s session before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform. On Wednesday, Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who favors the research, will lead a meeting of a subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

These hearings are forcing lawmakers to announce their opinions on stem cell research; members of the House who attended today’s hearing appeared split. Several spoke of relatives who suffer from diseases that might someday be treated or cured as a result of the research.

One prominent lawmaker who had not previously declared his views, Trent Lott, the Senate Republican leader, has now done so, saying at a news conference on Monday that he is opposed to “farming or harvesting embryonic stem cells.” Mr. Lott added: “I have a problem with that.”

Embryonic stem cells are extracted from microscopic embryos that are no bigger than 200 to 300 cells. The stem cells have the potential to develop into any type of cell or tissue in the human body, and many scientists say they have great potential for repairing or replacing damaged organs. The issue before President Bush is whether to accept, overturn or revise a ruling by the Clinton administration that would permit research on cells derived from embryos that had been kept frozen at fertility clinics, so long as scientists did not work on the embryos themselves. A decision is expected in the next several weeks.

There are tens of thousands of such embryos in frozen storage, and the idea of embryo adoption, in which genetic parents donate their embryos to other infertile couples, is new. Marlene Strege, whose 2 ½-year-old daughter, Hannah, was adopted this way, told lawmakers she had come to Washington to get the word out, and was hoping to meet with President Bush.

“Are you scheduled to meet with the president?” asked Congressman Weldon.

“Well,” Mrs. Strege said, “we’re here. Do you have any connections?”

“I’ve been trying to get an appointment myself,” Mr. Weldon replied, adding he hadn’t been able to. “So, I guess, get in line.”

Those against embryonic stem cell research, who include religious conservatives, many Roman Catholics and abortion opponents, argue there is another ethical alternative: using so-called adult stem cells, which can be derived from blood, bone marrow, body fat and certain organs and can mostly yield the specialized cell types of the tissue from which it originated.

Today’s duel over stem cell research also featured scientists who argued the merits of one type of research versus the other. The National Institutes of Health has been preparing a confidential study examining all aspects of stem cell science; the report was circulated to a handful of members of Congress today and will be made public on Wednesday. A summary said both cell types were promising, but embryonic cells offered certain advantages, including greater flexibility and the ability to proliferate indefinitely in the lab.

But in the battle for public opinion, it was patients, not scientists and studies, who made the case today for either embryonic or adult stem cell research. Among them was Nathan Salley, 16, a leukemia patient from Arvada, Colo., who told lawmakers his cancer had gone into remission after an experimental treatment involving an infusion of stem cells from umbilical cord blood. These cells are considered adult stem cells.

“I am living proof that there are promising technically and useful alternatives to embryonic stem cell research and that embryos do not need to be killed,” Nathan said. As he spoke, his parents sat behind him, clutching hands; his mother’s lip trembled and she fought back tears.

Not long after Nathan spoke, Joan Samuelson, who has Parkinson’s disease, told lawmakers that embryonic stem cells were her hope for a cure, and added that not all frozen embryos would necessarily be adopted because some couples would prefer to give their embryos up for research.

Then Ms. Samuelson directed lawmakers’ attention to another woman sitting quietly in the audience: Milly Kondracke, the wife of the journalist Morton Kondracke, whose new book, “Saving Milly,” is a painful account of how Parkinson’s has ravaged his wife. Mr. Kondracke’s book is making the rounds in Washington this summer. His wife, frail and unable to speak, sat in a wheelchair, tended to by a caretaker, while Ms. Samuelson invoked her name and complained that politics was delaying a cure.

“I don’t know that I can hang on that long,” Ms. Samuelson said. “I pray Milly can.”

newspaper article in “The Ledger: New Young Faces Enter Stem Cell Research Debate in House” HERE.

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