Pawlenty tries to walk fine line on stem cell issue

Gov. Pawlenty told a group of social conservatives on Monday that the recent legislative gains made by DFLers will force him to play goalie on certain social issues. It looks like the first puck coming at the hockey-playing governor will be the controversial issue of embryonic stem cell research.

A Minnesota House committee is taking up a bill that would allow the University of Minnesota to fund research on stem cells that come from human embryos with state dollars. Pawlenty told the Minnesota Family Council's Legislative Insight Luncheon that he is open to the science with some restrictions.

"I do not support wide open embryonic stem cell research," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty says he would like to see research done on stem cells taken from umbilical cords, or adult stem cells, or through a procedure that allows for the extraction of embryonic stem cells without damaging the embryo itself. Pawlenty also says he supports research on existing stem cell lines as long as the embryo is no longer capable of producing human life.

"I don't support using embryos that exist and are capable of giving life but to take existing lines and not use them, at least on a limited basis, for which the embryo no longer exists, in my view, defies common sense," Pawlenty said.

The issue of taking cells from embryos stirs passion among abortion opponents and scientists alike. Pawlenty appears to be trying to walk a fine line on the issue.

Scientists say embryonic stem cells have the potential to cure diseases like Parkinsons and Alzheimers. But they complain that federal funding limits research to cell lines that some say are inadequate.

On the other hand, social conservatives say the process required to create new cell lines destroys an embryo and is unethical.

Dick Cohen of St. Paul, chief Senate author of a bill that would allow the University of Minnesota to spend state money on embryonic stem cell research, doesn't think lawmakers will accommodate Pawlenty's restrictions.

"There's no question his opposition is not based upon anything scientific, but it's political so he has to couch his opposition in language that suggests he still is supportive even though this kind of support is contradictory to what would really work," Cohen said.

Pawlenty didn't have to consider this type of legislation during his first term, mostly because Republicans blocked the legislation in the Minnesota House. But now DFLers dominate both chambers of the Legislature and it looks like the bill could end up on the governor's desk.

State lawmakers across the country are considering similar legislation because of the federal limits on research. President Bush vetoed a bill last year that would expand the funding.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, says she's worried Pawlenty, like the president, also wants too many restrictions.

"He's going in the same false direction with the idea that you put restrictions on it that have no ethical background behind it," she said.

Kahn is the chief author of the bill in the House. She thinks her bill also includes several important safeguards. One requirement is that anyone receiving fertility treatment would have to give consent before a clinic could use any unused embryos for the research. The bill receives its first hearing on Wednesday.

Kahn says she's surprised by Pawlenty's stance mostly because she thought Pawlenty had indicated support for embryonic stem cell research during last fall's election campaign.

DFLer Mike Hatch criticized the governor for not fully supporting Hatch's proposal to spend $100 million over ten years on embryonic stem cell research. Pawlenty had this response.

"I know Mr. Hatch wants to make stem cells an issue, but I'm going to disappoint him because we agree on the issue," Pawlenty said at the time. "I support stem cell research. I believe President Bush and Congress should go further than they have on stem cell research."

Kahn says she hopes the governor would be willing to negotiate on the best way to craft the bill. But it may be difficult to find a compromise on an issue that seems likely to be as hotly contested as the abortion debate.