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Frist breaks with President Bush, endorses destructive embryonic stem cell research

WASHINGTON (BP)–Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist endorsed legislation July 29 to provide federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos, putting him at odds with President Bush and giving renewed hope to backers of the controversial experimentation.

The Republican from Tennessee explained his support in a speech from the Senate floor, describing it as a reaffirmation of a position he outlined four years before. Frist, however, had said in June he supported Bush’s more restrictive policy, according to The Washington Post.

The Senate is expected to take up the legislation after it returns Sept. 6 from a recess that is scheduled to begin by Aug. 1.

The bill Frist endorsed would repeal the president’s rule prohibiting federal funds for stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which the House of Representatives passed in May, amounts to the most serious, congressional assault on Bush’s policy since the president instituted it in August 2001. The president’s rule allows funding for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence prior to his announcement of the policy.

Frist said he supports federal funds for research on embryos that are in storage at in vitro fertilization clinics and “would otherwise be discarded.” The House-approved bill, H.R. 810, would liberalize Bush’s policy to underwrite experimentation on such embryos.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters after Frist’s speech Bush has not backed down from his promise to veto the measure if it reaches his desk.

“The president does not believe we should be using taxpayer dollars to support the further destruction of human life,” McClellan said. “The president is someone who believes we shouldn’t be creating life for the sole purpose of destroying it.”

The pertinent question in the wake of Frist’s speech may be: Will an endorsement by the Senate’s majority leader, who is a physician, provide the impetus and cover for enough other Republicans to make a veto override possible?

It appears likely there are enough votes in the Senate to approve the legislation, and the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has said he believes he can muster the two-thirds majority needed for an override. The House voted 238-194 for the bill, leaving supporters about 50 votes short of the total required to override a veto.

Rep. Mike Pence, R.-Ind., told reporters he believes the House will sustain a veto.

“We are very confident that … House conservatives will represent the bulwark of the support for the president’s position,” Pence said. “Ronald Reagan said, ‘We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life, the unborn, without diminishing the value of all human life.’ Ronald Reagan was right, and Bill Frist is wrong.”

In his speech, Frist said he is “pro-life. I believe human life begins at conception. It is at this moment that the organism is complete.” He also said the human embryo “deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.”

Frist told fellow senators, however, he believes, as do many other doctors and scientists, embryonic stem cells “uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide.” His position in support of funding experimentation only on leftover embryos at IVF clinics is identical to one of the 10 principles for stem cell research he outlined in July 2001, Frist said.

Supporters of embryonic research hailed Frist’s announcement, but pro-life advocates expressed grave disappointment.

Speaking from the floor after Frist’s speech, Specter said it was the “most important speech made this year and perhaps the most important speech made for many years.” Specter predicted the speech will have an “enormous impact” and Frist’s “comments will reverberate far and wide, really around the world.”

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, a leading proponent of embryonic stem cell research, said she “was heartened by Senator Frist’s support” for the legislation, according to Agence France Presse. Her late husband, who died in 2004, had Alzheimer’s disease the last 10 years of his life.

Southern Baptist pro-life leader Richard Land said he was “brokenhearted.”

“Majority Leader Frist is a man of enormous abilities and conviction, and I am confident that he made this decision based on conscience and principle rather than political calculation,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Unfortunately, I could not disagree with him more on where his principles led him when it comes to the sacrifice of frozen embryos in the cause of searching for treatments for the ailments of older and bigger humans. The pro-life cause should be extremely grateful that we have a president who will hold the line and veto such a bill if it comes to his desk.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., a pro-life leader in the Senate, said there was a “very basic principle” that precedes the 10 principles for stem cell research Frist offered in his speech. “[T]hat is whether or not the young human embryo is a life or a piece of property, and how is it going to be treated,” Brownback said from the floor. “If it’s a person, it’s due its respect as a person. If it’s property, it can be done with as its master chooses.”

David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, said, “We have appreciated [Frist’s] thoughtful and principled stances on life issues in the past and are extremely disappointed to see what we consider a crucial moral lapse on this critical issue.”

Embryonic stem cell research has failed to produce any successful therapies in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. Meanwhile, research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources has produced treatments for at least 65 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.

Many opponents of embryonic stem cell research contend the House-approved bill providing funds only for research on leftover IVF embryos is the first step in a path that will lead to the cloning of embryos for research purposes.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. In addition to being extracted from embryos, the cells may be found in such non-embryonic sources as bone marrow, fat and placentas, as well as umbilical cord blood. While pro-life organizations oppose embryonic stem cell research, they generally favor experiments with cells from non-embryonic sources because their extraction does not normally harm the donor.

In embryonic stem cell research, embryos in normally the first week of life are destroyed when stem cells are extracted from them. Privately funded research on embryonic stem cells is legal and ongoing in the United States. Many scientists contend embryonic stem cells have more therapeutic potential than their non-embryonic counterparts. The strength of the pro-embryonic lobby’s claims is not evident in the priorities of the multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry, which has invested many times more in non-embryonic stem cell research. The federal government also underwrites experimentation on non-embryonic stem cells.

In his floor speech, Frist said the House-passed bill has “significant shortcomings” that should be addressed but it is fundamentally consistent with his principles. It needs a tougher oversight element and a ban on financial incentives between researchers and IVF clinics, he said.

The ERLC urged 16 Republican and two Democratic senators to vote against the measure in a July 13 letter from Land. Accompanying the letter to the senators was a copy of a resolution adopted by messengers to the 2005 Southern Baptist Convention in June. The resolution, which appeared to gain unanimous approval on the floor of the convention, expressed opposition to destructive embryonic research and called on the Senate to defeat legislation that provides funds for such experimentation.

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson said Frist’s action will not help him with social conservatives if he runs for president in 2008. “To push for the expansion of this suspect and unethical science will be rightly seen by America’s values voters as the worst kind of betrayal — choosing politics over principle,” Dobson said.
With reporting by Michael Foust.