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Congress challenges Bush stem cell policy

WASHINGTON (BP)–While most Democrats and even numerous Republicans in Congress continue to assail the Bush administration’s pro-life policy on embryonic stem cell research, the president appears to have the support of his party’s leadership in both houses.

The Senate has more than the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster and bring to the floor legislation to weaken Bush’s ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell experimentation, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said recently. While the votes for lifting the president’s restriction are in place, Hatch told CNN he is uncertain if Congress would take action “in this hot political atmosphere,” the Associated Press reported.

Hatch, normally a trustworthy vote for the pro-life cause during his 27 years in the Senate, is one of the leaders of a congressional effort to fund the controversial research. While research on stem cells from adults and such sources as placentas and umbilical cord blood is universally supported, most pro-life advocates inside and outside Congress oppose embryonic stem cell research because it results in the destruction of donor embryos.

That has not prevented Hatch and some others with pro-life credentials in Congress from advocating that government fund destructive embryonic experiments, even though such privately funded, stem cell research is already legal. In June, 58 senators, including 14 Republicans, wrote Bush urging him to revise his 2001 order barring federal funds for such research. That followed a similar letter in April from 206 of 435 members of the House of Representatives. Thirty-six GOP members signed onto that letter.

The White House has said the president is standing firm, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert have indicated a bill to fund stem cell research on some embryos is unlikely to be considered as a stand-alone measure.

“We will likely not have full-blown debates and votes on it in the next several weeks, because it’s a very political issue very quickly because it gets into abortion issues and tough issues,” Frist said July 12, according to Bloomberg News. `”In the middle of a campaign, in a very narrowly divided Senate, I don’t think we can do it justice.”

Despite those assurances, it still is not clear what Congress will do on the issue before it adjourns this fall, Douglas Johnson, a leading specialist on federal life issues, told Baptist Press. It is “increasingly unlikely,” however, that advocates of embryonic research funding will be able to move a bill all the way through the process this year, he said.

Reps. Michael Castle, R.-Del., and Diana DeGette, D.-Colo., introduced the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 4682, in June after spearheading the House group letter to Bush. The bill would call for federal funding of research on embryos donated by patients at in vitro fertilization clinics. While action on the measure as a free-standing proposal is doubtful, the possibility remains it could gain passage in another format.

“It certainly is a possibility that the critics of the president’s policy would offer amendments to appropriations bills,” said Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. “Nobody to my knowledge has announced they are intending to offer such amendments, but it wouldn’t be too surprising if they did.

“The critics of the president’s policy would have a number of obstacles to overcome” if they decide to attach the measure to an appropriations bill, Johnson said.

Congress is far behind on the appropriations process. Even if it were to approve the measure as an amendment, Bush likely would veto the bill to which it is attached. Then, two-thirds majorities in both houses would be required to override his veto — an unlikely occurrence.

“But when you have that many lawmakers signing letters, it is certainly a cause for concern,” Johnson said. “We take this very seriously. We are certainly urging members of Congress to oppose any amendment” that would change the president’s policy, he said.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is taking the threat seriously as well.

ERLC President Richard Land sent a letter to Hastert July 2 noting that the SBC entity is “gravely concerned” in the wake of the letter to Bush from the House members.

“Because of our commitment to life, we oppose any experimentation that eradicates the existence of any human, inside or outside the womb,” Land said in the letter. “We vehemently oppose embryonic stem cell research and any effort to expand taxpayer support for its funding.”

Hatch predicted in his July 4 interview with CNN the president eventually would compromise with embryo research advocates. “That has to be done or we’re going to have a mess on our hands all over the world,” Hatch said.

Stem cells are primitive cells from which other cells and tissues in the human body develop. Their discovery has raised hopes for treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.

While most researchers contend embryonic stem cells offer the most potential for treating such diseases, stem cells from other sources have already 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 animal research using embryonic cells.

Bush’s 2001 order bars federal grants for stem cell research that results in the destruction of embryos, but permits funding for research on the colonies of existing embryonic stem cells in which, as he put it, “the life-and-death decision has already been made.”

The president’s policy does not ban federal funding of adult stem cell research, nor prohibit privately funded embryonic stem cell research.