ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland House of Delegates passed legislation Friday to provide $25 million in state funding for stem cell research, outvoting delegates who said they were opposed to the destruction of embryos for research purposes.
The bill, which would give funding priority to research on embryonic stem cells, passed by an 85-54 vote. The fight now moves to the Senate, where Republicans have threatened to filibuster a similar bill, starting perhaps as early as next week.
Impassioned debate preceded the House vote, with Delegates drawing on personal experience, history and the Bible to make their arguments for and against the legislation.
Supporters of the bill argued that the state has a responsibility to find treatments for “horrible diseases” and that embryonic stem cells holds great possibility for finding cures of diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and paralysis.
Opponents of the bill argued that embryonic research has yet to produce cures for any human diseases and that state money should instead be focused on adult stem cell research, which has already produced results.
Though their focus was on fiscal responsibility, several opponents made it clear they thought embryonic stem cell research was immoral.
Speaking on the floor of the House, Delegate Gail H. Bates, R-Howard, said spending state money on embryonic stem cell research would not produce the results that sick people and their families expect.
“Giving false hope to these people is like trying to sell fish oil,” she said.
She went on to outline her moral objections to the research. She said the Bible and science give clear guidance to when life begins.
“I believe that the discovery of DNA has shown us where life begins,” she said. “After conception an embryo has everything it needs to live.”
She quoted from a passage in the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, saying: “Before you were born I set you apart.” The passage suggests that life begins at conception, she said.
Delegate Tanya T. Shewell, R-Carroll County, focused her criticism on the lack of results from stem cell research.
“So far the score for embryonic stem cells has been zero, nada, zip,” she said. “Why should Maryland bet $25 million on the losing research team?”
Responding to that criticism, Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery, invoked the name of Robert H. Goddard, a pioneer of rocket development. He said that Goddard, who designed and launched the first liquid-fueled rocket, was unjustly ridiculed for his work.
The lesson to take from Goddard, he said, was that just because embryonic stem cell research has not yet produced a cure, does not mean it is not worth pursuing.
“Robert Goddard blew up a lot of rockets before he got them to fly,” Barve said.
Delegate Peter H. Hammen, D-Baltimore City, said Maryland needed to fund embryonic stem cell research because of restrictions on federal funding put in place by President Bush.
“The science is there, but the money isn’t,” he said, in a final plea to House members to pass the bill. “That is why we are debating this bill.”
The primary sponsor of the legislation, Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, said the House vote was evidence that funding for embryonic stem cell research is widely supported by members of the General Assembly.
But he said he was not confident that the House version of the bill had much chance of passing the Senate, where a similar bill has stirred up a potential filibuster battle. Senate Republican leaders have vowed to filibuster the bill.
He said that the Senate bill, which unlike the House bill does not mandate research funding, is more likely to be passed by the General Assembly if it can survive the threatened filibuster. The Senate bill was sent back to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee for further debate Friday, after Senate Republicans complained about changes made to the bill’s language after the committee gave it a favorable vote. It was given second favorable vote Friday and returns to the Senate floor for debate.