N.J. Stem-Cell Bill (A-2840) Clears The Legislature

By, Kaitlin Gurney - Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted on Tue, Dec. 16, 2003

View pictures from the Jan. 4, 2004 Bill Signing, including pictures of Christopher Reeve.

TRENTON - New Jersey will become the second state to sanction stem-cell research after the Assembly yesterday narrowly passed a bill to authorize the use of discarded embryos for scientific purposes.

The vote ended a yearlong debate that pitted patients' groups against abortion foes and religious conservatives. Members of both groups, wearing T-shirts, hats and stickers for their cause, vied for space to watch the emotional Assembly debate, which was resolved by one vote.

After the Senate passed the stem-cell proposal last December, the bill appeared to be on a fast track to Gov. McGreevey's promised signature - a promise he reiterated yesterday. But discussion in the Assembly quickly resulted in a moral standoff, and Democratic leaders withdrew the bill in February.

In the impassioned, hour-long debate on the Assembly floor, it became clear that the 10-month hiatus had changed few minds. While Assemblywoman Alison McHose (R., Sussex) declared it a "human cloning bill" that would "give New Jersey a market for cloned fetal parts," Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D., Union), a sponsor, said the proposal would give lawmakers a chance to help researchers find cures to a range of diseases.

"I believe this bill is not the most significant law we'll write this session - but this century," Cohen said after the bill passed, 41-31, with seven abstentions.

Stem cells, essentially blank cells created in the first days of pregnancy, are valued for their capacity to multiply quickly as they become different types of organs. Scientists say they may someday be able to use stem cells to grow replacement organs and tissues that could treat such diseases as Alzheimer's, leukemia and Parkinson's.

The Assembly legislation would allow New Jersey residents who use fertility clinics to donate their unused embryos for research. It also would make the use of stem cells for human cloning a first-degree crime.

New Jersey would join California as the only states to stand up to federal stem-cell-research restrictions. In 2001, President Bush announced that federal funding would go only to then-existing colonies of embryonic stem cells.

New Jersey's measure would provide no funding for research. The President's stance did not address private funding.

In the absence of an official federal law, states such as New York, Maryland, Washington and Massachusetts also have considered proposals to authorize stem-cell research.

But such efforts have drawn opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and abortion foes who consider the destruction of any embryo a moral crime.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference released a statement yesterday declaring support for research on adult stem cells, which come from adult tissue, placentas or umbilical-cord blood, but condemning the use of living human embryos. "The creation and destruction of human embryonic stem cells violate the sanctity of human life," the conference stated.

The New Jersey Right to Life group went further, announcing a campaign to lobby the U.S. Senate to ban "all types of human cloning, including embryonic stem-cell research."

"It is clear that to win this vote, the Democratic leadership had to twist a lot of arms," said Marie Tasy, public-affairs director for New Jersey Right to Life. She said the version passed by the Assembly was considerably broader than California's law. "It is sad New Jersey will be the first jurisdiction to allow unethical research and cloning, because there was a lot of misinformation out there."

The proposal's supporters emphatically denied that any cloning would occur, pointing to the language in the bill that would make the practice illegal.

"These aren't fetuses; they're embryos due to be discarded," Assemblyman John McKeon (D., Essex) said. "I respect anyone who thinks this is a moral slippery slope, as I've heard opponents say. But to call this a cloning bill, or anti- right-to-life bill, that's simply inaccurate."

Other legislators said state support for stem-cell research was important to maintain New Jersey's position as the leader of the pharmaceutical industry. Senate Copresident Richard Codey (D. Essex), the legislation's Senate sponsor, said it "showed the rest of the world we intend to promote medical progress, rather than stifle it."

To the friends and family members of people with debilitating illnesses who crammed into the crowded Assembly gallery, the vote served as a message of hope. A loud cheer erupted as Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D., Union) cast the deciding vote.

"I'm a right-to-life Roman Catholic, but when people at fertility clinics are done having children, I want a chance to use those discarded embryos," said Tricia Riccio, whose son Carl was paralyzed in a wrestling accident 10 months ago. "There's such a world of opportunity here. I have a beautiful 17-year-old son, and I'll do whatever it takes to make him better."

Contact staff writer Kaitlin Gurney at 609-989-7373 or kgurney@phillynews.com.

SOURCE: The Philadelphia Inquirer, PA
http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/local/7500541.asp