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House again approves D.C. vouchers, ban on human patents

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives repeated passage of both a school voucher program for the District of Columbia and a ban on the patenting of human beings during business Dec. 8.

Both measures were included in a consolidated appropriations bill the House approved with a 242-176 vote. Though the House had passed both proposals earlier in the year, they were included in the conference report for 2004 spending on several federal agencies. The Senate has yet to vote on the conference report.

The patenting ban would codify a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office policy that prohibits patents on human beings at any stage of development. The measure especially is designed to block biotechnology firms and researchers from gaining patents on human embryos.

The school choice proposal establishes a pilot program for low-income D.C. families to use vouchers to send their children to schools of their choosing, including religious schools.

“School choice will make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of low-income children,” said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the chief sponsor. “Choice should not be limited to families with the means to make a choice. The fact is the monopoly of D.C. public schools is harming D.C. children. It’s time to shake up that monopoly.”

The legislation provides $13 million for the voucher program, as well as $1 million for administrative costs, in addition to $13 million for D.C. public schools and $13 million for charter schools.

President Bush strongly supports the voucher plan, as do D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. School Board President Peggy Cafritz. Criticism of the district’s public schools is common, and recent tests showed D.C. ranked below every state in basic skills in the fourth and eighth grades.

Public school and teacher organizations, as well as some civil liberties and church-state groups, lead the opposition to vouchers.

In friend-of-the-court briefs, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has supported the inclusion of religious schools in education choice programs, saying the government cannot discriminate against religion when it decides to offer a benefit that can be used at other private institutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld last year a school choice program in Cleveland, Ohio, that permitted the use of vouchers at religious schools. The high court ruled the program was “entirely neutral with respect to religion” and did not offend the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion.

The ERLC and other pro-life organizations have stood in opposition to patents on human beings as the possibility of biotech firms gaining such government approval has increased in recent years.

Paige Cunningham, chairman of the board of Americans United for Life, told LifeNews.com a patent was issued for animal cloning in 2001 to the International Center for Technology Assessment that “was written so broadly that it appears to include human cloning and products of cloning in its protection.”

In calling for House support for his amendment this summer, Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., the lead sponsor, cited a recent report by a Chicago research team that it had created “she-males.” The researchers injected male cells into female embryos and allowed them to grow for six days in an attempt to find cures for genetic disorders. They also said they hope to patent this research.

“No one should be able to own a human being at any stage of development,” Weldon said. “Congress has never spoken to this issue, and I felt it was past time that we did.”

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