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Last year offered a hard-fought battle between social conservatives and families with relatives suffering from ailments such as diabetes, juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease over the politically and ethically contentious topic of stem-cell research. Lobbying efforts by grass-roots advocates, disease-related lobbying groups, politicians, and celebrities on the issue were intense. But victory seemed at hand — “seemed” being the operative word — after supporters of a bill that would increase federal funding for research scored a victory on Capitol Hill. But it didn’t last long. Not long after the stem-cell research bill, sponsored by Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colo.), passed the House and Senate, it was vetoed by President George W. Bush. Supporters of the legislation, including the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research and other disease-specific associations, believe the research can deliver breakthrough cures and treatments for a number of diseases while opponents, mostly anti-abortion and powerful Republican-leaning lobby groups such as the National Right to Life and the Family Research Council, oppose the use of stem cells from human embryos on ethical grounds. Stem cells, which serve as something of a repair system for the body, have the potential to develop into many different cell types. The debate weighs the value of the embryo, which some consider a human life, against the use of that embryo to save lives. The long-debated issue has garnered high-profile celebrity steam from the likes of the late actor Christopher Reeve, former first lady Nancy Reagan and, last year, actor Michael J. Fox. Fox, who has Parkinson’s, helped ignite the issue in November’s Senate campaign when he appeared in an ad on behalf of Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who is a supporter of stem-cell research. The ad created a stir after radio personality Rush Limbaugh accused Fox of exaggerating the physical effects of the disease on camera. Despite all the national attention, the debate failed to sway the president’s stance on the issue. With Democrats now in control of Congress and armed with plans to challenge the president’s veto, however, the new year may turn out to be a happy one for advocates of stem-cell research. Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has vowed to seek votes on federal funding that would attempt to override the president’s July 2006 veto to limit federally funded stem-cell research to cell lines that were derived on or before Aug. 9, 2001. Critics of the veto say the embryonic stem cell lines the president approved for federal funding six years ago are inadequate to advance stem-cell science and that there are too few of them. Even with the Democrats’ promises to send the bill back to the president, it will probably face another veto, says Yuval Levin, fellow at the D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine. “Democrats probably still don’t have enough seats to override a veto in the House,” he says. “But it’s definitely clear that they will be working to pass the same bill.” Though the stem-cell research lobby was successful last year in putting pressure on Republicans and persuading Democrats that research was a winning issue, Levin says it did not heavily influence the November elections, even though, in addition to McCaskill, other Democrats from Maryland, New Jersey, and Ohio who supported research defeated Republicans who opposed it.
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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