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The Science and Politics Behind the Stem Cell Debate

Human embryonic stem cells are at the center of one of the most emotional and heated battles on Capitol Hill right now. CBS News health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains the science and politics behind the debate on stem cells.

Leading scientists say human stem cells have the potential to cure diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Others say that using human embryos to develop these cells is the same as taking a life. While a final decision by President Bush on whether the government should pay for the research is anxiously awaited, passionate debate continues in Washington.

"I conclude that embryonic and adult stem cell research should be federally funded within a carefully regulated, fully transparent framework," says Republican senator Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Senator and heart surgeon Frist has joined other antiabortion Republicans like Arlen Spector, Jessie Helms, and Orin Hatch in support of stem cell research. Other Republican lawmakers are holding out against the research.

"I believe, all in this room agree, that this embryo is alive. The central question remains: Is it a life? Or is it a mere piece of property to be disposed of as its master chooses?" says Republican senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Tens of thousands of embryos sit frozen in fertility clinics around the country--extras, leftover from couples who have completed treatment for infertility. Until now, extra embryos were often discarded. But 2 years ago a stunning discovery was made: Cells from these embryos, called embryonic stem cells, taken from the inside of an early embryo, can be manipulated in the lab to become any type of cell--heart, liver, bone, etc. They would be healthy cells that could be used to replace diseased ones. In diabetes, that would mean making cells that could produce insulin.

"One American dies from diabetes every 3 minutes. We owe [this to] children and the 16 million with the disease, to pursue all promising research avenues…including stem cell research," said actress Mary Tyler Moore at a Senate hearing.

Mary Tyler Moore is just one of the many celebrities lined up in support of the research.

"I see in these cells a chance for a medical miracle. The government has done its work. I ask you now to release our tax dollars so the scientists can do theirs. Thank you," said actor Michael J. Fox.

Complicating the debate is the more recent discovery that stem cells can also be found in living adults.

"Take the adult stem cell research and other alternatives, increase their funding, explore fully how well those can work and come back in a year or 2 years and see whether the case in favor of needing to go that extra step is really needed," says Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Still others say that extra embryos should be adopted by infertile couples like Lucinda and John Borden, whose twin sons were born from adopted frozen embryos.

No ne doubts that stem cell research will go forward using private money, but most scientists say breakthroughs will come faster with government funding. Researcher Evan Synder says he has already seen dramatic results in mice with spinal cord injuries.

"To have in your hands the ability to help somebody and to not take advantage of that is perhaps the greatest sin and the greatest ethical breech of all," says Synder.

President Bush is not expected to make a decision about stem cells until after he returns from Europe. Which way he will go is a guess at this time, but one important indicator is that Bill Frist, the Senate's only doctor and Bush's close advisor, now supports it.
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