Crist enters stem cell fray
But the governor is playing it safe with a position likely to appeal to both sides in the stormy debate.
By JONI JAMES
Published January 31, 2007
TAMPA — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist carefully waded into the national stem cell debate Wednesday, proposing the state spend $20-million on such research but only for projects that don’t destroy embryos to obtain stem cells.
Crist evoked his father’s battle with macular degeneration, an eye disease that leads to blindness, as he formally unveiled his plan at a brain research facility at the University of South Florida that already does stem cell research.
“Promoting the quality of life is compatible with protecting life,” Crist said. “This will impact future generations of Floridians and Americans.”
Crist’s carefully crafted stance, a retreat from his campaign platform that broadly supported embryonic stem cell research, nonetheless drew support from advocates and foes.
Stem cell research is widely popular with the public, but it is controversial among policymakers because it can involve harvesting stem cells from human embryos.
Proponents say the use of stem cells in medical research offers great promise for battling disease, but opponents say embryonic stem cell work violates the sanctity of human life.
Crist’s plan, which would use only adult stem cells or existing stem cells lines so that human embryos wouldn’t be destroyed, seems likely to sail through the Florida Legislature. Lawmakers convene next month for their annual session that will include writing the 2007-08 state budget.
Conservatives praised Crist’s plan for its limits, which match those embraced by President Bush. Stem cell advocates called it a pragmatic first step on a politically charged issue.
House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, both said they would back the governor’s plan.
“It doesn’t matter to me as long as it gets started,” said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, whose 23-year-old daughter died 15 years ago of leukemia, just five months after giving birth to her son. “Stem cell research is the answer to these type of diseases.”
But some Florida lawmakers who believed they had Crist’s support for a broader plan that would have included new embryonic research were disappointed. Recent efforts to address embryonic stem-cell funding had been thwarted by conservative lawmakers in the House and former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
“I think (Crist) receded too quickly,” said House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. “I think this was a battle where you needed the guy with the biggest bully pulpit making the case for advancing research into curing diseases.
“The fact that before a single shot is fired, we now basically have in Florida what is President Bush’s position on stem cell research is a little disappointing. More than a little disappointing.”
Crist told reporters he still supports embryonic stem cell research but said his concessions were made in the face of the political reality of the Florida Legislature. Among those who would have opposed a broader bill was Rubio.
“What is important is we get this started ... that we have a dedicated funding mechanism,” Crist said. “We have to start somewhere.”
Among those embryonic stem cell opponents who embraced Crist’s position were the Florida Catholic Conference and Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative advocacy group led by Orlando attorney John Stemberger.
Under Crist’s proposal — which dovetails with a House plan drafted by Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and supported by prominent conservative Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala — any Florida research institution could apply for a grant.
A statewide commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, which would include scientists, would award the money. Crist called for just a one-year $20-million allocation, but he said he would support Flores’ proposal to make a 10-year, $200-million funding commitment.
Florida would become the eighth state to dedicate money for some level of stem-cell research. The first was California in 2004, when voters approved a $3-billion pool to distribute to embryonic stem-cell researchers.
Crist’s plan comes three weeks after the new Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives approved passage of an embryonic stem-cell bill aimed at lifting President Bush’s 2001 ban on using federal funds on any embryonic stem cell lines developed after August 2001. Bush vetoed a similar bill last year and has promised to do so again.
Scientists believe stem-cell research, a nascent field uncovered just nine years ago at the University of Wisconsin, has broad promise for a host of degenerative and chronic conditions — from diabetes to cancer. Stem cells come from a range of sources: bone marrow, spinal fluid, umbilical cords and aborted fetuses.
But most controversy has arisen over the destruction of frozen embryos, usually being discarded by fertility clinics, to obtain embryonic stem cells. Scientists consider them the most promising medium for developing cures because the cells are largely undeveloped.
Opponents contend destroying an embryo, even for medical research, is immoral.
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.