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LIFE DIGEST: British buying stem cell gift certificates for Christmas; pharmacists favor freedom on ‘morning-after’ pill

WASHINGTON (BP)–Some British shoppers seeking gift ideas for Christmas have not ruled out stem cells.

Parents and grandparents are purchasing Christmas gift certificates for the storage of infants’ stem cells this season. Smart Cells International, one of a growing number of companies willing to collect and store stem cells from umbilical cord blood, reports it has sold 50 gift certificates for stem cell storage and had more than 1,000 requests about the service, according to The Daily Telegraph, a British online newspaper.

“The people who have contacted us -– primarily current or imminent grandparents -– have clearly put great thought into how they can give something very different, but very meaningful,” Smart Cells Managing Director Shamshad Ahmed told The Daily Telegraph. “Stem cells may seem to be an offbeat or even bizarre gift, but, in effect, they are a long-lasting insurance policy that has a once-only purchase date.”

Smart Cells has stored almost 4,000 samples of stem cells from babies’ umbilical cords, the newspaper reported.

In the process, blood from an infant’s umbilical cord is taken, and stem cells are extracted from the blood and frozen for possible use by the same person if he becomes sick in the future, according to The Daily Telegraph.

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 umbilical cord blood, the cells may be found in such sources as bone marrow, fat and placentas. They also may be extracted from embryos, but their extraction destroys the tiny human being.

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 treatments include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.

PHARMACISTS OBJECT –- More than two-thirds of pharmacists believe they should be able to refuse to fill prescriptions for the “morning-after” pill, which is considered an abortifacient by many pro-lifers.

A survey conducted Dec. 3-4 found 69 percent of American pharmacists agreed they should have the authority to decline filling prescriptions for emergency contraception. The poll by HCD Research of Flemington, N.J., was conducted less than a week after the Walgreen Co. placed four of its pharmacists on indefinite, unpaid leave for refusing to abide by an Illinois government rule that requires the filling of prescriptions for contraceptives, including the “morning-after” pill, even if to do so violates pharmacists’ consciences.

Many pro-lifers consider the “morning-after” pill to be an abortifacient because it not only restricts ovulation in a woman but it can act after conception. The method can block implantation of a tiny embryo in the uterine wall, thereby causing an abortion, pro-lifers point out.

The HCD poll found 63 percent of pharmacists believe Walgreen should not have placed the four pharmacists on leave; only 29 percent thought the corporation was justified in disciplining its employees.

The survey also revealed 39 percent of pharmacists believe they should not be required by state law to fill prescriptions they object to; 37 percent said they should be able to refuse to fill a prescription but should be required to refer a customer to another pharmacist.

Meanwhile, three of the disciplined Illinois pharmacists have filed religious discrimination complaints against Walgreen’s with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The American Center for Law and Justice filed the complaints Dec. 7 on behalf of Richard Quayle, a Baptist, and John Menges and Carol Muzzarelli, both Roman Catholics, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The other pharmacists placed on leave has since agreed to Walgreen’s terms and returned to the job, the Post-Dispatch reported.

ACLJ Senior Counsel Francis Manion called Walgreen’s action “shocking,” saying in a written statement the company “made no attempt to fulfill its legal obligation under federal and state law to respect the rights of these dedicated health care professionals to decline to participate in practices that are contrary to their beliefs. Instead, at the beginning of the Christmas holiday season, the company sent its operatives on a night-time raid, going from store to store to fire people who seek only to practice their profession in a manner consistent with their moral convictions and the applicable law.

Illinois is the only state to have a rule requiring pharmacists to dispense the “morning-after” pill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, issued the rule earlier this year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved prescription use of two brands of the “morning-after” pill, Preven and Plan B. The FDA is considering whether it will permit over-the-counter sale of Plan B without a prescription to women 16 years of age and older.

The “morning-after” pill is basically a heavier dose of birth control pills. Under the regimen, a woman takes two pills within 72 hours of sexual intercourse and another dose 12 hours later.

ROMNEY REVERSES -– It appears Massachusetts hospitals with pro-life policies will not gain an exemption from a state law requiring the “morning-after” pill to be offered to rape victims.

Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, reversed himself Dec. 8, only two days after supporting a proposed regulation by Public Health Commissioner Paul Cote Jr., who said a previous law protects hospitals from being forced to perform abortions or distribute contraceptives, according to the Associated Press. “We feel very clearly that the two laws don’t cancel each other out and basically work in harmony with each other,” Cote said, AP reported.

Romney’s legal advisers, however, told him the new law makes the previous one obsolete in this case, he said.

“On that basis I have instructed the Department of Public Health to follow the conclusion of my own legal counsel and to adopt that sounder view,” Romney said, according to AP. “In my personal view, it’s the right thing for hospitals to provide information and access to emergency contraception to anyone who is a victim of rape.”

The new law, which was passed over Romney’s veto, will take effect Dec. 14, AP reported. Massachusetts will be the eighth state to require hospitals to provide the “morning-after” pill to rape victims, according to AP. None provides an exemption for religious and moral objections, AP reported.

The “morning-after” pill, also known as emergency contraception, is basically a heavier dose of birth control pills. Under the regimen, a woman takes two pills within 72 hours of sexual intercourse and another dose 12 hours later.

Many pro-lifers contend the “morning-after” pill is an abortifacient because it can act after conception, in addition to restricting ovulation. The method can block implantation of a tiny embryo in the uterine wall, thereby causing an abortion, pro-lifers point out.