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Romney, president differ on stem cells

Governor won't back state funds for work

With embryonic stem cell research emerging as a key issue in the presidential election, Governor Mitt Romney yesterday stuck by his fundamental difference of opinion with President Bush over the federal funding of new lines of research, saying he believes it "can be conducted in an ethical and moral manner."

Romney's wife, Ann, suffers from a disease that could potentially be cured by stem cell research, and Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director, said the governor "wants to encourage and support scientific research and the discovery of new cures."

Responding to questions from the Globe, Fehrnstrom said, "For that reason, he supports stem cell research on new and existing lines, in both private and federally funded settings."

That position, also outlined during a press conference this week by Ann Romney, puts the Republican governor at odds with the president's policy and far closer to that of Senator John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee.

Bush's policy forbids federal funding of any research on lines of embryonic stem cells produced after Aug. 9, 2001. Kerry decried that policy as an impediment to scientific advancement and pledged to allow federal funding on all lines discovered by researchers.

Even as he parted company with Bush on the issue of expanded federal funding for stem cell research, Romney said he has no intention of earmarking state money for research efforts by firms or universities here in Massachusetts, as New Jersey recently did. He also refused to take a position on a new, cutting-edge stem cell harvesting technique that involves the cloning of human cells for therapeutic stem cell treatments.

"There's no reason to believe there are any gaps in the funding for stem cell research that require the state to step in with money of its own," Fehrnstrom said.

Regarding the cell cloning research method, which made headlines around the world after the British government sanctioned such work for the first time, Fehrnstrom said, "We're not going to take a position on finer and finer gradations of this issue without giving it careful reflection and thought."

Since running for office in 2002, Romney has expressed his support for stem cell research, in no small part because his wife has multiple sclerosis and she has passed on the genes for the disease to her five sons and seven grandchildren.

She spoke out in favor of stem cell research Tuesday, saying she believes the work can be done "morally and ethically" and "we need to learn more about it."

Scientists believe the study of embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to become any cell in the body, could yield a host of valuable insights into a range of diseases, including juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's disease. But the president and others are concerned the research crosses a fundamental moral line because scientists must kill embryos to do the research.

As hopes for the research have increased, the question of whether to keep the Bush policy has sparked an animated public debate. Ron Reagan, son of the late president, spoke at the Democratic National Convention in favor of stem cell research.

A number of prominent Republicans in both houses of Congress have called for a change in the policy, arguing that the lack of federal funding is holding back valuable research. Recent polls suggest a growing majority of Americans backs federally funded stem cell research.

In Massachusetts, home to the nation's largest cluster of biotechnical research, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been eager to portray the Bay State as the ideal center for stem cell research. For two years, legislation aimed at encouraging the research has passed the state Senate, but later died in the House, where Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, an opponent of stem cell research, has refused to allow a vote on the topic. In both instances, Romney has said he would have signed the legislation if it had crossed his desk.

New Jersey lawmakers have devoted $6.5 million to developing new lines of stem cells within the state's public university system, and California has passed a bill encouraging stem cell research in that state.

In August 2001, when the president limited federal funding for stem cell research to lines already produced, there were 78 lines for scientists to work with. Since then, roughly 130 new lines have been developed, all either outside the United States or produced with private capital.