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Bush urged by 58 senators to relent on embryonic stem cells

WASHINGTON (BP)–Fourteen members of President Bush’s own party have joined with most Democrats in the Senate to call on him to revise his order prohibiting federal funds for destructive research on human embryos.

The leaders of the effort pointed to former President Reagan’s June 5 death after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease in appealing for the policy change.

The 58 signatories provide a strong majority on the issue in the 100-member Senate. In April, 206 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives wrote a similar letter urging Bush to revise his policy. In response, Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, wrote May 14 to report Bush still opposes government funds for such experimentation.

“This issue is especially poignant given President Reagan’s passing,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., said in a June 7 written statement. “Embryonic stem cell research might hold the key to a cure for Alzheimer’s and other terrible diseases. This is why we must do everything in our power to support this research and give hope to the millions of Americans who suffer today.”

The procurement of stem cells, the body’s primitive cells from which cells and tissues develop, from an embryo only a few days old results in the embryo’s destruction, however.

While most researchers contend embryonic stem cells offer the most potential for treating Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and other diseases, such cells from other sources already have provided effective treatments. Stem cells from such sources as placentas, umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow have produced therapeutic results without harm to the donor. Meanwhile, problems, including the development of tumors, have plagued research using embryonic cells.

Among the 14 Republicans who signed on to the June 4 letter were Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Trent Lott of Mississippi, John McCain of Arizona and John Warner of Virginia.

Only five Democrats did not endorse the letter. They were Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

The senators appeared to signal at least one way in which they would like Bush to expand his policy. They noted there are estimated to be more than 400,000 frozen embryos created by in vitro fertilization that are in storage and, as they said, “will likely be destroyed if not donated” for experimentation.

Feinstein, Hatch and the other originators of the letter effort -– Sens. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa; Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass.; and Arlen Specter, R.-Pa. –- also are the lead sponsors of a bill that would permit cloning for research purposes while banning cloning for reproduction. Their legislation is in contrast to a measure by Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., to prohibit cloning for either purpose.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other pro-life organizations oppose embryonic research, no matter the source of the stem cells, because of its destructive effect. The ERLC and others support stem cell research from non-embryonic sources since it is not harmful in such cases.

In August 2001, Bush issued an order barring federal grants for stem cell research that results in the destruction of embryos. Bush permitted funding for research on the colonies of existing stem cells in which, as he put it, “the life-and-death decision has already been made.” It turned out there were only about 20 such colonies, far fewer than expected.

The text and a list of signers of the letter are available at Feinstein’s Internet site, http://feinstein.senate.gov.

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