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LIFE DIGEST: Bush policy may be seen as turning point in stem cell research, columnist says; pro-life students win


WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal government official recently criticized President Bush’s restrictive policy on funding destructive embryonic stem cell research, but a physician-turned-columnist said the chief executive’s rule may be viewed one day as a decision that led to the most significant breakthrough for such experimentation.

Story Landis of the National Institutes of Health told a Senate committee Jan. 19 the president’s stem cell policy has caused researchers to miss “out on possible breakthroughs,” Reuters News Service reported.

Since August 2001, Bush has barred federal funds for research that requires the destruction of embryos. His policy permits grants for experiments on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when his rule was announced.

Despite legislative action in its last session, Congress was unable to achieve a two-thirds majority to override Bush’s veto.

There is a “compelling need to pursue both embryonic and non-embryonic stem cell research,” said Landis, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Science works best when scientists can pursue all avenues of research. If the cure for Parkinson’s disease or juvenile diabetes lay behind one of four doors, wouldn’t you want the option to open all four doors at once instead of one door?”

Charles Krauthammer, a syndicated columnist with a medical degree, said in a Jan. 12 commentary Bush may deserve the gratitude of future generations for his stand.


They “may nonetheless thank Bush for standing athwart history, if only for a few years,” wrote Krauthammer, who favors liberalizing the president’s policy. “It gave technology enough time to catch up and rescue us from the moral dilemmas of embryo destruction.”

The recent discovery of versatile stem cells in amniotic fluid may make all the difference in such research, said Krauthammer, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Stem cells in amniotic fluid not only are uncontroversial, because they do not require a donor’s destruction, but they are vast and may prove more useful than embryonic cells, he said. Embryonic stem cell research has been plagued by the development of tumors in laboratory animals.

“If it is proved that these are the Goldilocks of stem cells, history will record the amniotic breakthrough as the turning point in the evolution of stem cell research from a narrow, difficult, delicate and morally dubious enterprise into an uncontroversial one with raw material produced unproblematically every day,” Krauthammer wrote.

“It will have turned out that Bush’s unpopular policy held the line, however arbitrary and temporary, against the wanton trampling of the human embryo just long enough for a morally neutral alternative to emerge,” he wrote. “And it did force the country to at least ponder the moral cost of turning one potential human being into replacement parts for another.”

Pro-life advocates consider the embryo, which is normally less than a week old when it is destroyed for the harvesting of stem cells, to be a human being, not a “potential human being.”

The Senate is expected to vote in February on a bill to liberalize Bush’s stem cell funding rule. On Jan. 11, the House of Representatives voted 253-174 for a measure to provide funds for research using stem cells extracted from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics.

The House vote was a gain from its last effort but still well short of that needed to override a veto. A veto override would require 290 votes to succeed if all House members vote. In July 2006, the House voted 235-193 in an unsuccessful effort to overturn Bush’s only veto so far.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions.

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, which is funded by the federal government, does not harm the donor and 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.

N.Y. GOLD RUSH –- New York will become the California of the East Coast, at least when it comes to destroying embryos for their stem cells, if Gov. Eliot Spitzer has his way.

The newly inaugurated governor urged passage of a $2 billion, 10-year bond initiative for research and development in his first speech to the New York legislature, according to The New York Times. At least half of the proposal would go for stem cell research, with an unreported amount to experiments that destroy human embryos.

California voters approved in 2004 a plan to provide $3 billion in funds from bonds over 10 years for research utilizing embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning. Promoters of embryonic stem cell research have since acknowledged it is unlikely therapies for clinical use will be developed within 10 years and may not be available for decades.

Advocates of embryonic stem cell research lauded the New York plan.

“The real value is that if New York is involved, you suddenly have an ability to make a leap in progress across the country’s best minds,” said David Bluestone of Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, The Times reported. “You never get advances from one lab in one state. You need this to be happening across all the states with the best research institutions.”

Kathleen Gallagher of the New York State Catholic Conference tried to provide a dose of reality in response to the proposal by Spitzer, a Democrat.

“We recognize that they say they will ban cloning, but what they’re talking about is banning the cloning of live born babies but funding the cloning of human embryos that will be destroyed for research,” she said, according to The Times.

STUDENTS WIN- – Students in four public school districts have won the right to proclaim the pro-life message with the help of a legal alliance that defends free speech rights.

The Alliance Defense Fund gained the victories in a week’s time in districts in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, it reported Jan. 22. The ADF had filed lawsuits against the districts on behalf of the students.

School officials either agreed with the students following the lawsuits or were ordered by federal courts to permit the young people to express their opposition to abortion on campus. School administrators previously had prevented students from displaying pro-life messages on their clothing, distributing leaflets or otherwise proclaiming their disagreement with the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

The students had sought to express their convictions during the Students Day of Silent Solidarity, a national, student-led event in October. Stand True, a Christ-centered organization for pro-life young people, sponsors the annual observance. Students typically wear red armbands and/or red duct tape over their mouths and distribute “Why I am Silent” flyers when asked.

Students at high schools in Adams, N.Y., Cresson, Pa., and Winchester, Va., and a middle school in Clifton Park, N.Y., gained the free speech victories.

“A public school’s property line does not separate a student from his or her First Amendment rights,” ADF legal counsel Matt Bowman said in a written release. “The law is clearly on the side of peaceful, pro-life student speech.”