ANNAPOLIS – A controversial bill intended to encourage embryonic stem cell research in Maryland cleared two Senate committees Tuesday, setting the stage for a filibuster showdown in the Maryland General Assembly, possibly as soon as Friday.
Opponents of the legislation said compromise amendments that removed the words “embryo” and “embryonic” from the bill did not address their ethical concerns. “The bill is being sold as a compromise,” said Senator Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County, a committee member who voted against the bill. “But priority is still given to embryonic research.”
The Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee voted to send the bill to the Senate floor with a favorable report, after the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voted to remove a clause that would require a minimum amount of state funding to go to stem cell research every year beginning in 2008.
The vote clears the way for the legislation to go before the full Senate, where Harris and other opponents have threatened to filibuster it, a move that could lock up the General Assembly halfway through its 90-day session until it is resolved.
Harris said that 20 senators will join in a filibuster of the bill, despite compromise amendments made to it since it was first introduced. In order to end a filibuster – that is, to cut off endless debate on a bill – supporters of a measure must have a three-fifths majority. That means opponents of the bill need at least 19 of the 47 members of the Senate to sustain the filibuster.
The prospect of a filibuster comes despite changes made to the bill in an attempt to reach a compromise.
The focus on embryonic stem cells in the legislation sparked opposition among legislators who believe that life begins at conception and that it is immoral to destroy the ball of cells that comprises an embryo.
Supporters of the bill and many researchers argue, however, that embryonic stem cells hold the unique potential for becoming any type of cell in the human body and thus offer great promise for medical breakthroughs.
As it was originally written, the bill provided $25 million in research funding, specifically for embryonic stem cell research. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would have been in charge of establishing a peer review process to determine which researchers in the state would receive funding.
The latest version of the bill, however, does not specify how much money would actually be allotted to embryonic stem cell research.
Instead, it establishes a commission that would decide how to spend state funding for stem cell research provided to the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO), a quasi-governmental business development organization based in Columbia.
Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, who is up for re-election this year, has proposed $20 million in funding for stem cell research in the state budget to go to TEDCO.
His proposal leaves the choice of whether the money would be spent for research on embryonic or adult stem cells up to TEDCO, but that would change if the bill approved by committee Tuesday passes the Senate. In that case, the commission established by the proposed legislation would determine which researchers receive grants.
The commission would give priority to stem cell research that is not already funded by the federal government. This is a preference that opponents of the legislation, like Senator J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, argue would funnel most of the money to embryonic stem cell research.
“The only thing not funded by the federal government would be embryonic stem cell research,” said Stoltzfus during a briefing on the bill before the Budget and Taxation Committee voted to remove the mandatory funding clause from the legislation. “We still have the same problem we had before.” The legislation could come up for debate on the Senate floor as soon as Friday, according to Sen. Harris.