Archive for Thursday, March 23, 2006

Senate wrestles with human cloning

State budget considerations turn into debate about embryos

March 23, 2006


— A proposed ban on using taxpayer dollars to support embryonic stem cell research failed Wednesday in the Senate, as consideration of a proposed state budget turned into a passionate debate over human cloning.

Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, proposed an amendment to the $11.7 billion budget to prevent the state from subsidizing what he described as the creation of human embryos only for research purposes.

His proposal would have prevented state agencies from spending money on cloning or to "participate in an attempt to perform human cloning." Because it would have been included in a budget bill, it would have applied only for a year, starting July 1.

But senators voted 25-15 against Huelskamp's amendment after some of them said they didn't have enough information to understand the complicated scientific issues involved, or what ramifications it would have for medical research. The proposal had some senators using laptop computers to search the Internet for information from their desks.

"We don't know what we're doing here today," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, who voted against the measure. "We are debating matters that are beyond the knowledge of nearly every member."

But Huelskamp insisted that the issue was simple: whether the state would allow tax dollars and state employees to participate in human cloning.

"I personally find cloning morally offensive," he said. "Do you want your tax dollars to be used to create human embryos for the purpose of research - to dissect, to cut up, to extract?"

Absent Huelskamp's amendment, senators gave first-round approval on a voice vote to the proposed budget to finance state government after July 1. It largely follows the spending plan Gov. Kathleen Sebelius outlined for legislators in January.

Final action on the budget is expected today. The House already has approved its own proposed budget, and the final version will be drafted by negotiators for both chambers.

Embryonic stem cell research - and whether it represents cloning - are hot topics in Missouri, where a group of researchers and patient advocacy groups hope to place a proposed constitutional amendment protecting the research on the ballot.

Officials, researchers and philanthropists also hope to turn the Kansas City metropolitan area into a national hub for biosciences research. Last year, Kansas lawmakers approved legislation designed to stimulate related industry.

"The stakes are very high here," Schmidt said.

At issue is a process in which the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg is replaced with the nucleus of another cell. The altered egg then is stimulated to grow in a lab dish, so researchers can remove the resulting stem cells. The process is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Critics, who include many anti-abortion activists, describe the process as human cloning. They argued Wednesday that most Kansans oppose such cloning and don't want to be forced to support it.

Supporters of such research argue that it's not cloning because it doesn't involve male sperm cells and couldn't create a fetus. Also, they said, the state shouldn't do anything that might block the research necessary to find cures for cancer, diabetes or Parkinson's disease.

"I think it's a very dangerous precedent to set," said Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, a physician. "We have no business cutting off funding for research at this level."

But Huelskamp and other critics of embryonic stem cell research said it hasn't proven promising, while the use of adult stem cells or umbilical cord blood from newborns is providing cures.

For example, Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, a cancer survivor, noted that her teenage son was treated for leukemia with adult stem cells two years ago in Texas. Wagle said she'd like to have the same treatment option available in Kansas, suggesting financial support for embryonic stem cell research could jeopardize that.

"It was a treatment that was done in another state that saved his life," she said of her son.


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