Faced with a new federal policy that opens the door for more embryonic stem cell research, conservatives have geared up for a political battle at the national and state levels that goes to the core of their beliefs about the sanctity of human life.
Since President Obama lifted the eight-year ban on nearly all federal funding for stem cell research this week, conservative leaders have stepped up efforts to lobby Congress to preserve some restrictions, they said. They plan to launch a far-reaching campaign to educate the public about their point of view -- as well as research alternatives that are not as controversial.
"This executive order is just the beginning of the process. Our concern is how broad this will be interpreted, and will there be limitations," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "With limited tax dollars available, we should not use those funds for research that is at best morally questionable."
Embryonic stem cell research long has been a divisive issue in the U.S., pitting those who believe that destroying human embryos is wrong against those who tout stem cells' potential to save lives. Debates have been waged in Congress, among the public and within the religious community since researchers at the University of Wisconsin first successfully isolated stem cells from human embryos, in 1995.
The lifting of the research rules imposed by President Bush in 2001 means the National Institutes of Health will be developing parameters -- entailing new debate. Several states in recent years have taken steps to promote or restrict studies.
On Thursday, Georgia's Senate passed a bill to ban the creation of embryonic stem cell lines. The measure was hastily rewritten to address concerns that it would hamper the fertility industry.
The state legislation defines an embryo as a person, thus prohibiting its use in scientific research and making it illegal for researchers to create new ones. Violators could lose their medical license and be fined up to $1,000 for each offense. The legislation seeks to control the use of embryonic stem cells and moves the debate into the antiabortion arena.
"It is sort of an endgame if you are antiabortion," said Aaron Levine, an assistant professor of public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology. "It's not written explicitly in the bill, but if the embryo is a living human being, clearly the logical follow-up is that abortion is not appropriate. Some would argue that this is a backdoor way to get at the abortion issue."
Conservative leaders say the Georgia measure is the first of many such moves nationwide.
"You will see different efforts on the state level to protect the unborn and promote the culture of life," said Perkins. "State legislators have the ability to shape public policy from their vantage point, so we will see some creative responses to this executive order to counter its destructive outcome."
After Bush restricted funding to about 60 embryonic stem cell lines that existed before 2001, some states passed legislation or initiatives allocating funds or allowing for private donations to fund such research.
Hundreds of new stem cell lines that have since become available are now eligible for federal funding.
California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin passed legislation or initiatives to move ahead with research despite the federal ban, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Research is legal in Iowa and Missouri, though no funding was included in the legislation that allowed it.
Stem cell research is restricted in Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota, although in some cases, the courts have not yet ruled on the measures' legality.
Conservative leaders said they would lobby Congress to maintain a ban on using federal funds for research that creates or destroys human embryos. They also plan to advocate the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, which are artificially derived from adult cells, as an alternative to embryonic stem cells.
"We have no problem with research that does not result in the death of embryos. This would provide all the stem cell material necessary for research without causing unborn babies to be killed," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "This is very important to our community, and it will make a difference in how many of their constituents get their vote."
The problem with legislation like Georgia's, which attempts to establish the beginning of life, is that there is no clear mechanism to determine if or how embryos should be afforded constitutional and legal rights, bioethicists said. Such attempts have failed in several states, including South Carolina and Colorado.
The language also is contradictory, bioethicists said, because it attempts to guard against using embryos for research while supporting their use in assisted reproduction.
"It is a problematic strategy because when you define an embryo as a person, what they say is: Therefore you cannot destroy them. My response is: Therefore you cannot freeze them. How can you freeze a person and keep them suspended in animation?" said Paul Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. "The idea that they can pick and choose which aspect of human life will be relevant is interesting."
Americans have generally supported embryonic stem cell research, with many hoping that in time it will result in a cure for spinal cord injuries and illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes.
According to a Gallup poll conducted last month, 38% of Americans said they supported easing the restrictions on research, and an additional 14% said they favored no restrictions.
Forty-one percent said they favored keeping the Bush restrictions or eliminating all federal funding.
Part of the impetus for the debate is the division within the religious community, as well as among conservatives in general, over the issue, Wolpe said.
The Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptists and many evangelicals oppose the use of human embryos for research, but there is no consensus in the religious community at large.
As a result, bioethicists said, conservative Republicans have not been able to make stem cell research a rallying cause among their base.
"On one hand, people want the cures that the stem cell research brings," said Wolpe. "But they also want a law that acknowledges the respect we should have for embryos. They don't want them to be treated merely as raw material for scientific research."