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LIFE DIGEST: Congress passes pro-life stem cell bill; Louisville discovery may prove ‘transforming’; Swiss to permit suicide

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congress has passed legislation to fund stem cell research supported by pro-life advocates.

A bill providing federal funds for the collection, testing and storage of stem cells from umbilical cord blood gained passage in the Senate and House of Representatives Dec. 16 and 17, respectively. The Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act, H.R. 2520, will authorize $79 million for work on cord blood stem cells and will establish a network for doctors and patients to gain access to, in an effort to find matches. The legislation also will provide $186 million for the reauthorization of the national bone marrow transplant system.

The measure funds research that does not harm human life, unlike embryonic stem cell experimentation, which requires the destruction of human embryos.

President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law.

“All who treasure life, both unborn and born, should applaud the passage of this bill,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This legislation will provide significant funding to advance stem cell research, with all of its enormous promise to alleviate human suffering, without using U.S. taxpayers’ money to sacrifice the lives of unborn human beings in order to harvest their stem cells.”

Though the House had passed the legislation with a 431-1 vote in May, some senators had balked at its approval. On Dec. 15, Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, blocked a unanimous consent agreement to the legislation, because Majority Leader Bill Frist would not set a date for a vote on a bill funding embryonic stem cell research.

The Senate, however, approved the cord blood bill by unanimous consent the next day, when Harkin dropped his hold on the measure. Because the Senate’s version differed slightly from the House-approved measure, the bill returned to the House, where it was approved in a 413-0 vote Dec. 17.

“We will now be able to turn medical waste –- umbilical cords and placentas -– into medical miracles for huge numbers of very sick and terminally ill patients….,” Rep. Christopher Smith, R.-N.J., the bill’s sponsor, said. “Not only has God in His infinite wisdom and goodness created the placenta and umbilical cord to nurture and protect the precious life of an unborn child, but now we know that another gift awaits us immediately after birth. Something very special is left behind -– cord blood that is rich with stem cells.”

Umbilical cords, which typically are thrown away by hospitals after birth, are a prime source -– along with placentas, bone marrow and fat -– of non-embryonic stem cells, which have provided therapies for more than 65 ailments so far, 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.

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. In such research, embryos in normally the first week of life are destroyed when stem cells are extracted from them. Privately funded research on embryonic stem cells is ongoing in the United States.

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

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other pro-life organizations oppose embryonic stem cell research because of its destructive nature, but they favor research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources.

In October, Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., sponsor of a Harkin-backed bill to permit grants for research on embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics, announced Frist had promised to bring the measure up early in 2006, though a Frist spokesman said the majority leader had not made a final commitment.

The Specter bill would liberalize Bush’s policy, which bars federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos but permits grants for embryonic stem cell lines in existence when he announced his policy in 2001.

MAYBE ‘HUGE’ — University of Louisville researchers may have discovered a way to provide treatments like those hoped for from embryonic stem cells without the violations to the sanctity of human life that such research produces.

The researchers reported they have been able to extract stem cells from adult mice that change into brain, nerve, heart and pancreatic cells, according to the Dec. 13 issue of The Louisville Courier-Journal.

“It’s huge,” research team member Ryan Reca said, according to the newspaper. “It’s an amazing discovery.”

The research must be duplicated, however, with cells from adult human beings. If the research shows adult stem cells can produce results similar to those in mice, and other researchers can replicate the method in a widespread fashion, the discovery will become “incredibly important,” said Stephen Emerson of the University of Pennsylvania, The Courier-Journal reported. It could be “transforming,” he said.

The Louisville research team named the type of cells as “very small embryonic-like” (VSEL). Many scientists believe embryonic stem cells have much more potential to transform into a variety of cells for purposes of treating a variety of diseases and other afflictions. So far, however, only non-embryonic stem cells have provided any therapies in human beings, and embryonic cells have often produced tumors in lab animals. Extracting stem cells from human embryos results in the destruction of the tiny human beings.

SWISS DEATH WATCH -– A hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland, has confirmed it will soon permit an assisted-suicide organization to aid terminally ill patients in taking their lives on its property.

Beginning in January, the Vaud University Hospital Center will allow the Exit society to assist in the suicides of patients who are already in its care and unable to return home, the Associated Press reported Dec. 19. The hospital will not admit people, however, whose sole goal is to commit suicide, a spokesman said.

Exit is able to assist in suicides for Swiss residents who are terminally ill in locations other than hospitals, AP reported.

Unlike the Netherlands and Belgium, Switzerland has not legalized euthanasia, but it does provide passive assistance for the terminally ill who seek death, according to AP.