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House vote near on stem cells; foes face challenge

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote the week of May 23-27 on a bill to fund destructive embryonic stem cell research, and foes face an uphill struggle in seeking to defeat it.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 810, is an attempt to overturn a policy announced in 2001 by President Bush. Under the Bush rule, federal funds are prohibited for stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos. The rule permits funding for such experiments only on stem cell lines already in existence prior to Aug. 9, 2001, when the president unveiled the policy.

Rep. Michael Castle, R.-Del., the bill’s sponsor, has 201 cosponsors for H.R. 810, leaving him only 16 votes short of a majority of the entire House. Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., is sponsoring a similar Senate version, S. 471, which has 32 cosponsors.

If both houses of Congress approve the measure, Bush will have to veto it to prevent it from becoming law.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other pro-life organizations oppose embryonic stem cell research because the procurement of such cells kills the embryo.

“We remain adamantly opposed to federally funded embryonic stem cell research; we support the president’s position,” ERLC President Richard Land told Baptist Press May 19. “I don’t think we want to be the kind of country that says it’s OK to kill our tiniest human beings, embryos, in order to harvest their stem cells to try to find treatments for the ailments of older and bigger human beings.”

R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said on his online blog May 19 “nothing less than human dignity” is at stake. “If a human embryo can be turned into mere material for medical research, every human life is discounted,” Mohler wrote.

House opponents of H.R. 810 are seeking to convince uncommitted Republicans to support instead a bill by Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., to promote the use of stem cells from umbilical cord blood, The Washington Post reported. The Cord Blood Stem Cell Act, H.R. 596, would establish a network of cord blood banks and authorize $45 million the next two years for the collection, testing and storing of cord blood stem cells for transplantation.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, building hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. Besides being extracted from embryos, the cells may be found in such non-embryonic sources as bone marrow, fat and placentas, in addition to umbilical cord blood.

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 58 ailments, according to the National Right to Life Committee. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.

Pro-life advocates who oppose embryonic stem cell research support experiments with non-embryonic stem cells, since the donor is unharmed.

The Republican Main Street Partnership is sponsoring a new pro-embryonic research television ad that features a father who says he was reared in a “very devout Southern Baptist family” in Chattanooga, Tenn. In a commercial that began airing May 16, Hamilton Cain tells the story of his son, Owen, 2, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a ravaging neuromuscular disease.

“I think we have a moral obligation to look for ways to cure diseases like SMA, and stem cells really do offer the best promise,” Cain says.

The ad urges viewers to call Congress and ask for support for embryonic stem cell research.

The Republican Main Street Partnership describes itself on its website as an organization of “centrist Republicans who are economic conservatives and take a pragmatic, common-sense approach to social issues.” It has more than 60 members in Congress.

Opponents of H.R. 810 also are urging Americans to call the Capitol switchboard, (202) 224-3121, to inform their representatives of their position.