Florida Primary GOPers Split over Stem Cells

Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Florida have split over the issue of embryonic stem cell research, which was recently thrust back into national controversy upon the death of President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s wife Nancy has been an outspoken proponent of the research–which involves the killing of embryos for their stem cells–because she believes it could lead to the alleviation of Alzheimer’s disease, from which Reagan suffered in the last ten years of his life.

Mel Martinez, the White House-backed candidate, and Johnnie Byrd, Florida House Speaker, oppose funding such research. Their position mirrors that of President Bush, who issued strict limitations on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in 2001, restricting it only to lines of cells from embryos already dead.

Bill McCollum, the initial frontrunner in the primary contest and the unsuccessful 2000 Senate candidate, has come out in support of loosening the restrictions, along with GOP candidate Doug Gallagher and all three leading Democratic candidates.

Claiming he is an “ardent supporter of preserving the sanctity of all human life,” McCollum defended his position as still pro-life in a statement: “I also believe that a critical part of being pro-life is helping the living . . . with the science now available to us,” he said.

Looking to capitalize on the recent national outcry to lift stem cell research restrictions, McCollum’s support for this research could instead alienate him from his base, which has up to now seen him as a strong conservative. But it does ally him with 58 current senators–only 14 of whom were Republican–who sent a letter to President Bush last week asking him to relax the restrictions on funding.

Martinez, Bush’s former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who was formerly president of the Florida Trial Lawyers’ Association and has donated to a handful of Democrat candidates in the past, has been viewed with suspicion by some conservatives. However, he may endear himself to them by maintaining a traditional conservative view on the matter despite the new wave of support for the research.

“All of us want to see progress in curing these terrible diseases, but not at the price of devaluing our humanity,” Martinez said in a statement. “I cannot condone destroying any life for the sake of medical research.”

Embryonic stem cell research, viewed by some to hold answers to problems like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes and spinal cord injuries, does not come without a cost. The process of acquiring such stem cells–which scientists say have the potential to become any type of human tissue–requires the destruction of a five-day-old human embryo.

However, human embryos are not the only place from which stem cells can be taken. Scientists have found what are commonly called adult stem cells in human tissues such as bone marrow and umbilical cords–cells that do not require the destruction of a human embryo to harvest. Advances in research of these cells will be the subject of a Wednesday Senate hearing, which will include testimony from patients such as one woman no longer confined to a wheelchair after her spinal cord injury was treated with her own adult stem cells.

Another hitch in the advancement of embryonic stem cell research is that for scientists to treat a patient with enough of his own stem cells, they would have to clone the embryos for the sole purpose of their destruction. Human cloning–though currently legal in most of the U.S.–is an issue even more controversial and repugnant to many conservatives than stem cell research.

Because of Reagan’s death, and despite his pro-life stance, some like McCollum, a former congressman who lost a bid for Senate in 2000 to Sen. Bill Nelson (D.-Fla.), have found political cover for supporting the research long viewed as immoral by conservatives and pro-life activists.