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A House vote soon on human cloning?

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WASHINGTON (BP)–Proponents of embryonic stem cell research may soon try to push through the U.S. House of Representatives a bill to approve federal funds for experiments on human embryos — including cloned ones — while falsely claiming that human cloning is being banned, according to a warning from a leading pro-life organization.

If successful, the legislation would pave the way for the U.S. government to underwrite “human embryo farms,” the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) said. Those embryos could be created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) or other techniques, including cloning, for use in federally funded research, NRLC said. Regardless of the method of their creation, the embryos would be destroyed in the process of the research.

The warning, which came in a seven-page, March 31 letter from National Right to Life Legislative Director Douglas Johnson to House members, said there was a “substantial chance” of a “bait and switch.” Such an effort would come in the form of a proposal that would appear to authorize funding only for research on “leftover embryos” stored at fertility clinics but actually would go much further, he said.

“We expect that the legislation now being prepared may combine a phony ‘ban’ on human cloning … with the language giving [the National Institutes of Health] expansive authority to conduct stem-cell research using human embryos of all kinds, both ‘leftover’ and created for research, whether created by IVF, human cloning or other laboratory methods,” Johnson wrote.

Such a legislative effort would follow President Obama’s March 9 order rescinding a ban on federal funding of stem cell research that destroys human embryos. In overturning a policy instituted by President Bush in 2001, Obama did not specify the guidelines for federal support of embryonic stem cell research. Instead, he directed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to issue rules on grants for stem cell research within 120 days.

Those guidelines will not permit funds for “the use of cloning for human reproduction,” Obama said at the time. His comment apparently referred to barring cloning to reproduce a child brought to birth, but he did not rule out allowing grants for cloning embryos for research purposes.

The open-endedness of Obama’s order appears to have encouraged congressional proponents of embryonic stem cell research to attempt a more expansive approach than in the past. In both 2006 and 2007, Congress approved federal funding for research using stored IVF embryos if donated by the parents. Bush vetoed both bills, because such use of the embryos would have destroyed them and violated his policy.

The bill NRLC expects to be promoted in Congress will contain language similar to the 2007 legislation, Johnson said in his letter. It likely will also provide the NIH director with “broad authority to sponsor research that depends on the killing of human embryos created specifically for research,” including clones, he wrote. One form of this approach could be “open-ended empowerment language” that would give the NIH director the ability to “update the guidelines” in any way he considers appropriate, Johnson said.

This kind of language could be combined with a human cloning ban that is “an outright deception,” Johnson said. Such a ban would prohibit cloning to produce an embryo for implantation into a woman’s womb but not cloning to create an embryo for lethal experimentation. NRLC describes it as a “clone-and-kill provision,” since it would require the embryo to be destroyed.

Supporters of research cloning sometimes try to avoid the “c-word” by claiming they simply support “somatic cell nuclear transfer” — which is the scientific name for cloning embryos.

Backers of the legislation also would likely seek to outmaneuver a federal law in effect since 1996 that bars federal funds from being used for the creation of human embryos for research, as well as experimentation that destroys or threatens the health or life of embryos, Johnson wrote. After gaining adoption of the new bill, they would try to “follow up by gutting or repealing” the prohibition on money for embryo research, he said. That ban is known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which is attached to the Health and Human Services spending bill.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D.-Colo., the sponsor of legislation to fund embryonic stem cell research, has acknowledged she is working on an effort to eliminate Dickey-Wicker.

Stem cells provide hope for producing cures for a variety of diseases, because of their ability to develop into other cells and tissues. Many scientists have promoted embryonic stem cell research because stem cells from embryos are pluripotent, meaning they can transform into any cell or tissue in the body. Extracting the stem cells, however, destroys the embryo. Embryonic stem cell research has yet to provide treatments for human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

But there are other forms of stem cells, including adult stem cells, which are found throughout the human body.

Human trials using adult stem cells have produced therapies for at least 73 ailments in human beings, despite the fact such cells are not considered pluripotent, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Non-embryonic trials in human beings have resulted in treatments for such afflictions as cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson’s disease, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries, the organization Do No Harm has reported.

Extracting non-embryonic stem cells does not harm the donor.

In addition, scientists have reported in the last 17 months discoveries of ways of converting stem cells from everyday skin cells into stem cells that have nearly the identical properties of embryonic ones. Such cells are known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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