A handful of states are encouraging new parents to donate blood from their babies' umbilical cords to blood banks so it can be used for future treatment or stem cell research.
Massachusetts already has taken steps to set up a statewide network of blood banks that can accept cord blood, and New Jersey has funded local efforts. New York set aside at least $5 million this year to build a central repository to save the frozen cord blood. Georgia's governor is exploring the idea of creating a statewide blood bank, and a cadre of Michigan lawmakers wants to use $5 million to do the same there.
Illinois lawmakers, meanwhile, directed the state's public health agency to mount an educational campaign directed at new mothers.
The drive to preserve umbilical cord blood lacks the deep splits encountered in the push to use unwanted human embryos for scientific research. The stem cells in cord blood don't require the destruction or cloning of embryos to use, so both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate support efforts to save cord blood.
Illinois state Sen. Bill Haine (D), one of the sponsors of his state's new education effort to convince new moms and dads to sign over their infants' cord blood, said the issue was so popular that its unanimous passage marked a "rare Kumbaya moment" at the Springfield Capitol.
"It provides an avenue for extensive stem cell research without raising the concerns about the creation and destruction of human life," Haine said.
The discussion over embryonic stem cells is far more divisive. States are split over whether to ban that type of research or promote it, sometimes with taxpayer dollars. President Bush has banned federal support for most stem cell research that would destroy human embryos and used the first veto of his presidency last month to strike down a bill that would have allowed federal funding for a wider range of embryonic stem cell research.
Cord blood is routinely discarded after birth unless it's donated to a blood bank or stored privately. It's rich in stem cells that normally generate new blood, because the baby needs more blood as it grows. Cord blood already used to treat dozens of diseases, mostly blood-related.
Cord blood is easier to transplant than bone marrow, which also can produce blood cells. It doesn't require as close of a genetic match as bone marrow, but creating a bank with blood from diverse donors still increases chances of finding a match for a patient.
But scientists are studying whether they can make wider use of stem cells found in cord blood, which aren't as versatile as embryonic stem cells that can be grown more easily into different tissues.
Despite some recent breakthroughs , stem cells from cord blood have proved trickier to grow in labs than embryonic stem cells. But there are already proven uses for cord blood, while it will take years for scientists to develop any treatments from embryonic stem cells.
For politicians who oppose embryonic stem cell research, backing legislation that encourages the study of adult stem cells - including those found in cord blood - shows that they're working for the technological and economic benefits often associated with stem cell research.
And it's rarely controversial.
The issue became contentious in Georgia this spring, but only because cord-blood promoting legislation wasn't called for a final vote before the state Senate adjourned in April.
Lawmakers pointed fingers at each other over who was to blame, but Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) accomplished many of the bill's goals by executive order. Perdue named a commission earlier this month to study the possibility of setting up a statewide network of blood banks that could accept cord blood. The panel is scheduled to report back in more than a year.
A group of Republican lawmakers in Michigan is hoping to start up a statewide blood bank with the use of money the state receives from the national tobacco settlement.
One of the lawmakers, Michigan state Rep. Glenn Steil (R), along with his wife donated the cord blood of their first child to a blood bank. When their second child was born, they decided to keep the cord blood for their family's use at a cost of roughly $3,000. But the experience prompted him to push for a statewide cord blood bank and to encourage others to donate cord blood, too.
"A lot of people would be turned off, because they thought I was talking about something that was controversial," he said.
Steil said that promoting his legislation has given him a chance to educate people about the difference between the adult stem cells in cord blood and the embryonic stem cells that have generated so much controversy.