After nearly backing away from the issue this afternoon, Senate Republicans on Thursday evening passed a bill that would prohibit at least one form of embryonic stem cell research in Georgia.
Somatic cell nuclear transfers, a form of research being used to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, would barred under the legislation, which over the course of six days had morphed several times.
When it finally passed, S.B. 169 was stripped of all penalties, criminal and civil, and faces an unlikely future in the House. Even so, Christian conservatives claimed victory and predicted it would send a message to biotech companies thinking of doing business in Georgia.
“We’ve established a beachhead in the 21st century. We know we’ve got major battles coming up,” said Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life, as he stood outside chamber, thanking senators as they left for the evening.
The bill was originally intended to restrict multiple births through invitro fertilization — inspired by the California “octuplet” mom. However, religious conservatives underestimated the reaction of couples who have had to cope with infertility.
Although already stripped of most regulation, the measure nearly foundered Thursday afternoon, the day all legislation must pass one chamber or another, when state Sen. Dan Weber (R-Dunwoody) spotted language in the bill that would have made it illegal for couples, when the wife is infertile, to pay the expenses of a second woman who chooses to donate her egg for the invitro process.
As debated Thursday afternoon, the bill would have also prohibited Georgia couples from donating unused embryos created during IVF treatments to researchers — in Georgia. Donations out-of-state were still permitted.
However, five other Republicans joined Weber and the Democrat caucus to table S.B. 169, which forced Republicans — worried about angering conservative Christian voters — into a 90-minute recess to rewrite the bill.
The new version would bar researchers from mixing human genes with ones from animals, and mandates that all embryos be created for the purpose of making babies. All mention of invitro fertilization was removed.
“We’re doing in five minutes things that ought to take a year and a half. You think this does nothing,” warned state Sen. Steve Thompson (D-Powder Springs). “It breathes life into something you’re going to turn over to the House of Representatives.”
State Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome), who acted as the rewrite man through the bill’s many permutations, explained the limited impact of the legislation to reporters after the final vote, which came only three days after President Barack Obama lifted federal restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research.
“What it says is when we form life in Georgia, when you create a fertilized embryo, that’s for the purpose of creating children. As for the scientific research on existing stem cell lines, or those brought in from out of state, there’s no restriction whatsoever,” Smith said.
Georgia couples could donate unused embryos wherever they chose, Preston said, as long as those embryos were created as part of a fertility process.
“After that the law becomes silent,” he said. “The only thing you can’t do is form the embryo for the purpose of scientific research.”
But opposing Democrats and the lead backers of the bill agree that this would ban somatic cell nuclear transfer, also known as therapeutic cloning.
“The only way you can do that is by creating an embryo. You remove the nucleus, and replace it with [another] nucleus, so you’re creating an embryo for purposes other than” procreation, said state Sen. David Adelman (D-Decatur), whose district includes Emory University — one of several institutions in the state likely to take advantage of Obama’s lifting of a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
“The most promising research involves somatic cell nuclear transfer. That is the research that the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation believes has them very close to a cure. The scientists believe that will be the first major disease cured,” he said.
“That’s really what this debate is about,” Adelman said. “These are the same people who don’t want us to teach evolution in our schools. This is the same crowd.”
Becker of GRTL agreed with Adelman about the reach of the bill — which is likely to surprise many of the senators who voted for it. “What the teeth are I’m not sure. But it makes a statement,” he said.
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