Poll provides new fodder for stem cell debate

Gov. Sonny Perdue and legislative Republicans may have thought they had tiptoed past a controversial issue last spring when the governor signed an executive order aimed at encouraging adult stem cell research.

But supporters of research using embryonic stem cells, who argue that it holds more promise for treating and curing degenerative diseases, are vowing to renew their fight during the upcoming General Assembly session.

And they'll be bringing a new weapon with them - a poll that shows strong support for embryonic stem cell research in Georgia.

No one objects to research using adult stem cells, which come from umbilical cord blood and other byproducts of childbirth.

On the other hand, recovering stem cells from days-old human embryos - even those from fertility clinics that otherwise would be discarded - is opposed by religious conservatives who believe that life begins at fertilization.

At the national level, the issue has pitted President Bush and like-minded Republican opponents of embryonic stem cell research against Democrats and several prominent Republicans who argue that the research has too much potential to be ignored.

The latter list includes Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a surgeon, and former first lady Nancy Reagan. Her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, suffered from Alzheimer's disease for years before his death in 2004.

According to the new poll, more Georgians side with Frist and Reagan than with Bush.

The survey of 600 registered voters - conducted by Ayres, McHenry & Associates, based in a Virginia suburb of Washington - found nearly 2-1 support for embryonic stem cell research using donated embryos from clinics that would have been discarded otherwise.

Fifty-three percent of the respondents supported therapeutic cloning research, creating an embryo in a laboratory that would not be placed in a woman's body but would produce stem cells for research purposes.

Only when asked about reproductive cloning, which involves duplicating an existing human being, did the vast majority - 79 percent - voice opposition.

"Georgians are part of the mainstream on this issue,'' said Charles Craig, president of the Georgia Biomedical Partnership, the nonprofit industry association that paid for the poll, which had a margin of error of 4 percent. "They are part of the national majority.''

State Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, said he plans to use the poll results as ammunition to try to convince his legislative colleagues to pass a constitutional amendment providing state funding of embryonic stem cell research.

If the General Assembly approves the measure this winter, it would go to Georgia voters in November 2008.

"If given a chance, I'm optimistic the people will speak strongly in favor of embryonic stem cell research,'' Adelman said. "I want to give them that opportunity in 2008.''

Adelman introduced a bill early in this year's legislative session to encourage research using both embryonic and adult stem cells.

But it fell by the wayside when Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, chairman of the Senate Science and Technology Committee, introduced a measure that touched off a firestorm from Democrats and some of the scientific experts who were following the issue in the legislature.

They claimed that a provision banning human cloning would have rendered ongoing embryonic stem cell research in Georgia illegal.

Adelman said Shafer's bill would make it difficult for Georgia to compete with other states for high-paying biomedical jobs.

"If we're going to criminalize research that is the most promising, we're going to send a signal that we're not a progressive, science-minded state,'' he said.

Although Shafer agreed to withdraw the provision, the clock ran out on the measure on the last night of the session. That's what prompted Perdue's executive order, which created a state commission to develop a network to collect and store donations of postnatal material used to harvest adult stem cells.

But Adelman said the commission hasn't even held its first meeting.

And even when it does meet, the governor has given it until December 2007 to do its work. Adelman said that's a long time to continue allowing other states to get the jump on Georgia.

Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick said the governor, too, is concerned that the commission hasn't met. She said he has urged its members to do so and been told a meeting will be held this month.

As for the lengthy timetable, Hedrick said the panel will be issuing status reports as it undertakes its work.

Despite the poll, she said Perdue believes sticking to adult stem cells is the right approach.

"Non-embryonic stem cell research shows every bit of promise that embryonic research shows,'' Hedrick said. "But it bypasses ethical, legal and legislative obstacles that would slow our research down.''

Shafer said he supports what the commission will be trying to do and plans to introduce a bill this winter to encourage the collection of adult stem cells.

As for the poll, Shafer said he sees little value in the results because of the way the questions were worded.

He said not a single question asked whether Georgians would support embryonic stem cell research if it results in the death or destruction of a human embryo.

"None of the questions addressed the issues raised in the legislation I introduced,'' Shafer said. "I could have answered most of the questions, 'Yes.'''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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