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Land: Bush ‘gets it’ on stem cells

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush’s latest veto of a funding bill for embryonic stem cell research received the expected divided reaction -– foes of the destructive experimentation applauded his action while supporters assailed it.

Bush vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act for the second time in less than a year June 20, reinforcing his commitment to block federal funds from being used in research that kills human embryos. The president also announced at a White House ceremony he had signed an executive order to encourage the government’s attempts to underwrite ethical stem cell studies.

“Like millions of other Americans, I am extremely grateful that we have a president who understands the sanctity of every human life,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “He understands that destroying human life in the hope of saving other human life is a moral line we must not cross as a nation. The president ‘gets it.’ I hope that someday soon his critics will as well.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, however, said Bush’s “cruel veto says ‘no’ to the hopes of million[s] of families across America.”

“Every family in America is just one diagnosis, one phone call or one accident away from benefiting from embryonic stem cell research,” the California Democrat said in a written statement. “Science has the potential to answer the prayers of America’s families; it is irresponsible for the president and many congressional Republicans to stand in the way of such progress.”

Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-life Caucus, disagreed with Pelosi, saying the president “has proved once again that he understands something that Speaker Pelosi and her allies cannot seem to comprehend -– the future of stem cell research is in ethical stem cell research, not life-destroying research.”

“Stem cell research options that are ethical, that are already yielding successful medical therapies and that are showing promise for treating many additional diseases and conditions are the types of research where our resources should be invested,” Smith said in a written release.

Bush came to the veto announcement armed not only with the resolve to keep his commitment to veto legislation that funds destructive embryo research, but he also had more evidence that ethical experiments are showing great promise.

In early June, three new studies were published showing skin cells can be converted to embryonic-like, or pluripotent, cells in the laboratory. The research on mice found the skin cells could be programmed to be nearly identical to embryonic cells, which many scientists believe are the most potent and flexible for therapies. Experiments remain to be done on human beings, but the development raised more doubts about contentions by proponents of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) that it should receive federal funds. Bush said June 20 this research received funding from the federal government.

In January, researchers reported they had found cells in amniotic fluid that have many of the same characteristics as embryonic stem cells without some of their deficiencies.

“Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical –- and it is not the only option before us,” Bush said in his 13-minute address at the White House. “Researchers are now developing promising new techniques that offer the potential to produce pluripotent stem cells -– without having to destroy human life.”

Embryonic stem cells are considered “pluripotent,” meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Non-embryonic stem cells, often referred to as “adult stem cells,” are regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types.

The bill would liberalize a policy instituted by Bush in 2001 that prohibits federal grants for destructive ESCR. His rule permits funds for research on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence at the time of the announcement of the policy.

The measure the president vetoed would provide funds for research using stem cells procured from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the days-old human beings.

The executive order Bush signed directs the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the National Institutes of Health, to assure that research on stem cells with embryonic-like qualities is eligible for federal funds if it does not harm embryos. His order also gave the NIH’s Embryonic Stem Cell Registry a new name, the Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry, “so it reflects what stem cells can do, instead of where they come from,” Bush said.

ESCR supporters still hope to overcome the president’s veto. They plan to attempt a veto override, first in the Senate. If that fails, and it appears it will, some members of Congress are prepared to attach a measure to a spending bill to send to Bush.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, plans to insert pro-embryonic research language in the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, The Hill newspaper reported June 15.

“Such grandstanding won’t overturn the president’s pro-life policy, but it could result in the entire appropriations bill being vetoed,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, in a written response to the report.

The Senate was much closer than the House to the two-thirds majority required for an override when it voted 63-34 for the measure, S. 5, in April. If the three senators who missed the first vote support the override, supporters of the bill could reach their goal. Sen. Craig Thomas, R.-Wyo., voted against the bill, but he died June 4. If a replacement has not been named to his seat when the override vote is taken, only 66 votes will be needed to achieve a two-thirds majority.

The House of Representatives approved the measure June 7 with a 247-176 roll call, leaving it 35 votes short of the target for an override.

There is no federal ban on the practice of ESCR, only on its public funding. The U.S. government provides grants for non-embryonic research, which does not harm donors.

The Bush administration has granted more than $3 billion in federal funds for research on all types of stem cells, according to a White House fact sheet. About $130 million has been for stem cells from embryos already destroyed when the president announced his policy in 2001.

Bush’s veto came one week after he told messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in a live satellite address he would turn back “any bill Congress sends me that violates the sanctity of human life.”

The SBC approved resolutions in 1999 and 2005 opposing stem cell research that destroys embryos.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources — such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– has nearly universal support. Such research has produced treatments for at least 72 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.