Stem-Cell Debate Hits Close to Home on Hill

Many members of Congress had a personal stake in the past week's debate over federal funding for stem-cell research: someone near or dear is affected by a disease which such research might help cure.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Much of the talk in Washington this past week was about filibusters and a presidential nomination that got held up. But one bill did win approval at the House of Representatives despite the threat of a presidential veto. It would expand funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Fervent opponents of abortion tried to block the bill, but they ran up against fellow Republicans who insisted the measure be put up for a vote. NPR's Julie Rovner has this look back on the debate. She found many supporters of the bill had a personal stake in stem-cell research.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Delaware Republican Congressman Michael Castle and his group of moderate Republicans and Democrats had been struggling to get a vote on their stem-cell bill for more than a year. They purposely drew the measure narrowly. It wouldn't allow federal funding for the actual destruction of embryos used to make the stem-cell lines, and it would only fund research on cell lines from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization processes--embryos that were otherwise going to be destroyed. But in the House, where power is centralized at the very top, there was virtually no chance of getting a vote unless leaders needed something from them. In March they saw their chance, Castle says.

Representative MICHAEL CASTLE (Republican, Delaware): We felt that we needed some pressure point and we made the budget the pressure point.

ROVNER: That was the must-pass annual budget resolution. Republican leaders knew they would get few Democrats and needed virtually everyone in their party to pass it. Castle says there was no explicit quid pro quo, but he did agree to vote for the budget, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert agreed to let the stem-cell bill come up for a vote. Abortion opponents who consider destruction of days-old embryos tantamount to murder pulled out all the stops. The influential National Right to Life Committee even notified members that a vote for the bill would be counted as a pro-abortion vote. But the House voted for the bill anyway: 238-to-194. Castle says it's not because the House is weakening in its opposition to abortion, but because the embryonic stem-cell issue is only tangentially related.

Rep. CASTLE: This really tests the very far outreaches of pro-life.

ROVNER: Anti-abortion Republicans like Indiana's Mike Pence tried their normally successful argument against the bill.

Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): I believe it's morally wrong to create human life to destroy it for research and I further believe it's morally wrong to take the tax dollars of millions of pro-life Americans who believe as I do, that human life is sacred, and use it to fund the destruction of human embryos for research.

ROVNER: But this time it didn't work. Indeed, several members with previously spotless pro-life records voted for the bill. One was Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri. She cited two young boys, one a constituent in a wheelchair because of a car accident and the other a friend's son with muscular dystrophy. She said the bill posed a choice between the potential of an embryo...

Representative JO ANN EMERSON (Republican, Missouri): An embryo that cannot live outside a uterus, an embryo that is going to sadly be thrown out as medical waste and the life of little James Wood and young Cody, I ask, `Don't they have as much of a right to life as that embryo that's going to be tossed away?'

ROVNER: Other members voted for the measure because of their own ailments. Democrat Lane Evans of Illinois has had Parkinson's disease for several years.

Representative LANE EVANS (Democrat, Illinois): Parkinson's does not keep me from doing the things that are important to my life and to my work. But Parkinson's does affect the everyday of my life. There are good days and there are bad days, but there's still a need for research and for a cure.

ROVNER: Now the measure moves to the Senate where the charge is being led by a very determined Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. He's currently undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin's disease. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

LUDDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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