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Young faces of stem cell debate

Nine months old and fidgeting in their parents' arms, Luke and Mark Borden, twins from California who were adopted when they were still embryos in frozen storage at a fertility clinic, came to the Capitol on Tuesday to help in a campaign urging President Bush not to permit federal financing of stem cell research that destroys human embryos.

Their father, John, held the boys up before a packed hearing in the House of Representatives, and asked his wife, Lucinda, to display a picture of three tiny balls of cells: their sons as embryos in a Petri dish, along with a third embryo that did not survive to birth. "Which one of my children would you kill?" Borden asked pointedly. "Which one would you take?"

Slender and ponytailed, Mollie and Jackie Singer, 12-year-old twins from Las Vegas who describe themselves as devout Roman Catholics, came to the Capitol to urge Bush to take the opposite position. Dressed identically in turquoise sweater sets and little black skirts, they clutched notes written in careful print as they spoke before the same lawmakers as the Bordens.

Mollie has diabetes, and Jackie says she wants stem cell research to spare her sister the debilitating effects of the disease. "Since Mollie was 4 years old I've watched her struggle with diabetes," Jackie said. "It's so hard."

So it went in the passionate fight over embryonic stem cell research in Washington, with advocates on each side of the issue using dueling images to put a human face on a question that has vexed the Bush administration: whether it is appropriate to use taxpayer money to conduct experiments that may save human life when those experiments, in the view of opponents, require the destruction of human life.

As Bush weighs a decision, the issue is heating up in Congress. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., and David Weldon, R-Fla., both of whom are opposed to the research, presided over Tuesday's session before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform. Today, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who favors the research, will lead a meeting of a subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

These hearings are forcing lawmakers to announce their opinions on stem cell research; members of the House who attended Tuesday's hearing appeared split. Several spoke of relatives who suffer from diseases that might someday be treated or cured as a result of the research.

One prominent lawmaker who had not previously declared his views, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., his party's leader, has now done so, saying at a news conference on Monday that he is opposed to "farming or harvesting embryonic stem cells."

Embryonic stem cells are extracted from microscopic embryos that are no bigger than 200-300 cells. The stem cells have the potential to develop into any type of cell or tissue in the human body, and many scientists say they have great potential for repairing or replacing damaged organs.

The issue before Bush is whether to accept, overturn or revise a ruling by the Clinton administration that will permit research on cells derived from embryos that have been kept frozen at fertility clinics, so long as the scientists do not work on the embryos themselves. A decision is expected in the next several weeks.

There are tens of thousands of such embryos in frozen storage, and the idea of embryo adoption, in which genetic parents donate their embryos to other infertile couples, is new.

Those against embryonic stem cell research, who include religious conservatives, many Roman Catholics and abortion opponents, argue there is another ethical alternative: using so-called adult stem cells, which can be derived from blood, bone marrow, body fat and certain organs and can yield the specialized cell types of the tissue from which it originated.

Tuesday's duel over stem cell research also featured scientists who argued the merits of one type of research versus the other. Last month, the National Institutes of Health provided Bush a confidential study that said both avenues promised "a dazzling array" of therapies. But the report said embryonic stem cells offered certain advantages, including greater flexibility and the ability to proliferate indefinitely in the lab. That report was made public by the NIH on Tuesday.

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