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ERLC refuses position on alternative bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission declined either to support or oppose an alternative stem cell bill approved by the Senate April 11.

ERLC President Richard Land and biomedical consultant C. Ben Mitchell issued a statement prior to the Senate vote commending the bill sponsors’ efforts to advance ethical research but expressing concern the measure might implicitly affirm the destruction of some human embryos.

The Senate voted 70-28 for the Hope Offered Through Principled and Ethical Stem Cell Research Act (S. 30). Known as the HOPE Act, the bill is designed to promote efforts to derive stem cells with the qualities of those found in embryos –- and known as pluripotent cells — without creating embryos for experimentation or destroying them.

Passage of the HOPE Act followed immediately after the Senate’s 63-34 vote for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (S. 5), a bill that would provide federal funds for stem cell experimentation that results in the killing of embryos. S. 5 would OK grants for research using stem cells procured from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the tiny human beings.

President Bush has promised to veto the embryo destructive measure, which is similar to one he rejected in July and which would liberalize a policy he instituted in 2001 to bar federal funds for research that destroys embryos. Bush, however, endorsed the HOPE Act in a statement after the Senate votes.

The ERLC, long an opponent of embryo destructive research and federal funds for its support, could not do so, because of uncertainty about one aspect of the legislation. The HOPE Act permits the extraction of cells from “naturally dead” embryos, but Land and Mitchell said they are concerned “it is impossible to determine accurately when the death of the embryo actually occurs.”

Other pro-life advocates also approached the bill carefully.

“We are neutral on S. 30 because, while it holds the ethical line, we want to be sure its safeguards are observed in practice,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a written statement.

The National Right to Life Committee simply said it “had no objection” to the measure.

Here is the full statement by Land and Mitchell on the HOPE Act:

“While we affirm the ethical principles that inform S. 30, we can neither endorse nor oppose it in its current form. We applaud the bill sponsors’ efforts to chart a path toward therapies and cures while trying to protect nascent human embryonic life from destructive research. On the face of it, the bill’s ‘natural death’ requirement seems to navigate this difficult territory.

“We are deeply concerned, however, that given our current understanding of the development of the early human embryo, it is impossible to determine accurately when the death of the embryo actually occurs. The bill’s definition of ‘natural death’ is: ‘having naturally and irreversibly lost the capacity for integrated cellular division, growth, and differentiation that is characteristic of an organism, even if some cells of the former organism may be alive in a disorganized state.’

“As we understand the state of the science, it is impossible to know precisely which living cells of an early embryo are necessary to sustain embryonic life. We are concerned, therefore, that the bill in its current form would tacitly authorize the destruction of so-called ‘low grade’ but viable embryos, not just deceased embryos.

“The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission remains firmly committed to the ethical advance of science, the development of treatments and cures for suffering humanity, and the protection of the dignity of every human being from conception to natural death.”

The Senate’s two independents -– Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, both of Connecticut -– joined 26 Democrats in voting against the HOPE Act. Supporting the legislation were all 49 Republicans and 21 Democrats.

The House of Representatives has yet to vote on the bill.

Mitchell is director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, as well as associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Both are located in suburban Chicago.