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Massachusetts Gov. W. Mitt Romney said this week that he will try to ban a method of obtaining stem cells that both Harvard University’s nascent Stem Cell Institute and other researchers in the state currently plan to undertake.
Romney had previously diverged from many other Republicans by offering at least provisional support for stem cell research. But he said this week that he would propose legislation to prevent the creation of embryonic stem cells exclusively for research purposes, citing an “ethical boundary” between using embryos discarded from fertility clinics and creating wholly new ones for scientific experiments.
These restrictions would affect Harvard directly, preventing researchers from carrying out proposed projects, particularly within the Stem Cell Institute. Researchers at the institute have said that the creation of stem cells is critical in allowing scientists to search for cures to hereditary diseases.
University President Lawrence H. Summers reaffirmed his support to Harvard’s scientists yesterday, saying that the ethical questions raised by Romney were not sufficient to merit new restrictions.
“Stem cell research holds important potential to transform the understanding of human diseases and to illuminate possible treatments and cures,” Summers said. “We take seriously the ethical issues involved, which have been subject to careful review at Harvard and at other institutions, and believe that it is vitally important to carefully proceed with such research.”
Romney’s statement followed the introduction of a bill on Wednesday by Massachusetts Senate President Robert E. Travaglini that would facilitate and further protect stem cell research.
Travaglini and other state senators, including Democrat Cynthia S. Creem, have proposed this legislation several times before. Last year, it passed the Senate but was blocked in the House.
And this year, Travaglini made the bill more prominent by promoting it in his inaugural address last month.
But Romney responded yesterday with a critical letter to Travaglini.
“Lofty goals do not justify the creation of life for experimentation or destruction,” he wrote, adding that creation of embryos crosses the boundary of “respect for human life.”
Proponents of Travaglini’s bill have said publicly that they hope to encourage further research at Harvard and other scientific institutions in Massachusetts, which currently face competition from the west coast. California voters approved a referendum last November to offer $3 billion to support stem cell research.
The Massachusetts bill, according to Creem’s legal counsel Sean J. Kealy, was also meant to streamline the legal paperwork currently involved in doing stem cell research, which Kealy said can be time-consuming and very costly.
Kealy added that although no financial incentives are included in the bill, legislators have already started discussing the possibility of offering financial support to attract researchers.
If not, Kealy said, he fears that researchers will “pack their bags and leave.”
“The state law quite stupidly restricts scientific inquiry, and that has to be changed,” he added.
Harvard in particular has been trying to advance stem cell research recently—creating its Stem Cell Institute last year, which circumvented Bush administration regulations on newly-created stem cells by using independent funds for its experiments. Douglas A. Melton—Cabot professor of the natural sciences and co-director of the Stem Cell Institute—has been outspoken in lobbying for stem cell studies both in Boston and in Washington.
Melton was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment. But he told The New York Times earlier this week that Romney’s stipulations would “set science back significantly.”
He added that creation of stem cells was necessary to explore the “root causes” of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
Charles Jennings, executive director of the Stem Cell Institute, declined to comment yesterday, stating the he could not comment until the University issued public statement.
But Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School Dan W. Brock challenged the logic behind Romney’s comments yesterday, saying that Romney’s distinction between types of cell development is arbitrary.
“In in vitro fertilization, we already allow the creation of embryos that will be destroyed by allowing the creation of more than necessary, so we’ve already accepted the principle that some embryos won’t be used for reproduction,” he said.
“It’s hard to make a case—five days after conception—that embryos have any of the properties of a human being, such that it is morally important how you treat them,” Brock added.
Brock estimated that currently about 400,000 extra cells are available from in vitro experiments. Romney also proposed that none of those stem cells be used without express permission from the donors in his letter to Travaglini yesterday.
—Zachary M. Seward contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Risheng Xu can be reached at email@example.com.
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