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LIFE DIGEST: Chances of Senate vote on embryonic stem cell funding may be waning; use of wombs cheaper in India

WASHINGTON (BP)–The likelihood of a United States Senate vote this year on funding stem cell research that destroys embryos appears to be decreasing.

Though Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had promised a floor vote on the proposal early this year, it looks like other factors may work together to prevent such action before November’s elections, The Boston Globe reported. A limited amount of time on the Senate calendar, as well as the issue’s politics nearing elections, may help block a vote this year, according to the newspaper.

Proponents for funding embryonic stem cell research are expected to campaign for a vote in May, however, The Globe reported.

If a vote does not occur this year, a bill approved last year by the House of Representatives will die, and the congressional wrangling over the issue will begin anew in 2007. If that happens, it will be satisfying to pro-life organizations, which fervently oppose liberalizing the current policy.

The House-passed legislation, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, is designed to undermine President Bush’s policy, which prohibits federal funds for stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos. His rule allows funds for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when his policy was unveiled in 2001.

Bush has promised to veto legislation that overturns his policy. The bill, H.R. 810, passed the House in a 238-194 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

The Senate, however, may be closer to being able to override a veto, if it votes on the legislation. Supporters contend they have from 54 to 66 votes, according to The Globe. They need 67 to override a veto.

Most pro-life advocates oppose research using embryonic stem cells because the extraction of the cells destroys the tiny human being. They support -– and the federal government funds -– non-embryonic stem cell research. Extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources such as cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow does not harm the donor.

“The bottom line is that [embryonic stem cell research] is not a field of promise and hope,” Lanier Swann, Concerned Women for America’s director of government relations, said in a written release, “but is an empty effort that requires destroying life and exploiting women in the hopes of finding cures for diseases.”

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, providing hope for the treatment of a host of debilitating diseases. Most scientists believe embryonic stem cells have more potential for providing treatments for debilitating diseases, but only non-embryonic stem cells have produced therapies so far. Embryonic stem cell research not only has failed to treat successfully any ailments, it has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. Research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources has produced treatments for at least 67 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.

The House-approved bill would underwrite research that uses embryos left over at in vitro fertilization clinics.

After opposing the liberalization of Bush’s policy, Frist reversed his position in July.

BARGAIN WOMBS –- India is becoming an increasingly popular destination for couples seeking surrogate mothers at a fraction of the cost they would pay in the United States and other developed countries, according to the Los Angeles Times.

While a surrogate in the United States would cost a minimum of $20,000 to $25,000, the range for one in India is between $2,800 and $5,600, the Times reported. Couples who are unable to have children sign a contract with an Indian woman to carry a child normally conceived by in vitro fertilization to delivery. The couple then takes custody of the child and returns home -– to another country or to another part of India.

The number of women implanted with embryos in order to serve as surrogates is increasing, but rural India remains largely opposed to the practice, the Times reported.

Still, both supporters and foes of the growing surrogacy business agree it might become a huge trade, possibly nearing $6 billion a year in India, according to the Times.

Foes of the enterprise express concerns about the exploitation of the poor and threats to the health of surrogates. Pregnancy and childbirth result in the death of about 100,000 Indian women a year, the newspaper reported.

“You’re subjecting the life of that woman who will be a surrogate to some amount of risk,” said C.P. Puri, director of India’s National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health, according to the Times. “That is where I personally feel it should not become a trade.”

CORD BLOOD ORDER –- Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has signed an executive order that will establish a state network of umbilical cord blood banks for the collection and storage of stem cells.

Perdue’s April 14 order created a 15-member commission on research regarding newborn umbilical cord blood. The panel will put in place a network of banks that will partner with universities, hospitals, nonprofit organizations and private businesses to collect and store stem cells found in umbilical cords, placentas and amniotic fluid. The cells will be available for research and treatments.

“Collecting non-embryonic stem cells from umbilical cord blood is safe, painless and risk-free,” Perdue, a Republican, said in a written statement. “Cord blood treatments are an ethically responsible way to relieve suffering and save lives.”

NO BUFFER ZONE -– A federal judge has struck down a city ordinance mandating a 20-foot, no-protest zone around an abortion clinic in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Judge Donald Middlebrooks ruled the measure violated freedom of speech. “Perhaps more than at any other place and any other times, in cases such as this, speech guaranteed by the First Amendment must be protected,” Middlebrooks wrote in his April 11 opinion, according to the Associated Press.

The judge decided, however, an ordinance barring “unnecessary noise” and “amplified sound” within 100 feet of an abortion clinic is legal, AP reported.

Michael DePrimo, a lawyer for three pro-life women who regularly appear outside the Presidential Women’s Center, a West Palm Beach abortion clinic, said the measure “was designed to suppress the speech of pro-life demonstrations,” according to AP.