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LIFE DIGEST: Senate nears embryonic stem cell vote; Ill. gov. outflanks legislature; FDA sets ruling on ‘morning-after’ pill

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate is expected to vote soon on a bill to provide federal funds for research that destroys human embryos, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity is seeking to curb support for the measure.

It appears the Senate will vote on the controversial legislation before it begins a five-week recess Aug. 1, and it may act this week. The bill is expected to pass.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, S. 471, which has 40 cosponsors, would change a policy instituted in 2001 by President Bush and permit funds for research that uses embryos left over at in vitro fertilization clinics.

The House of Representatives passed a companion bill, H.R. 810, in a 238-194 vote in May.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission targeted 16 Republican and two Democratic senators in urging them to vote against the measure in a July 13 letter from its president, Richard Land.

In the letter, Land called embryonic stem cell research an “immoral practice.”

“It is fraught with ethical problems,” Land said. “Any good that may come from this avenue of research will be forever morally tainted.”

Accompanying the letter to the senators was a copy of a resolution adopted by messengers to the 2005 Southern Baptist Convention in June. The resolution, which appeared to gain unanimous approval on the floor of the convention, expressed opposition to destructive embryonic research and called on the Senate to defeat legislation supporting funds for such experimentation.

Bush has promised to veto legislation that funds destructive embryo research. Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., has indicated he may have enough votes to override a veto, but an override attempt appears dead in the House. In approving its bill, the House fell about 50 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for an override.

Before its recess, the Senate may vote on as many as four or five other bills regarding stem cells and other bioethics issues. Among these are a comprehensive ban on human cloning; a bill to fund the collection, testing and storage of stem cells from umbilical cord blood; a prohibition on the creation of human-animal hybrids, known as chimeras; and an alternative stem cell research measure.

Bush’s current policy forbids federal funds for stem cell research that causes the destruction of embryos. So far, researchers have not found a way to extract stem cells from embryos without destroying the tiny human beings. Private funding of such research is not prohibited.

The federal government provides funding for stem cell research from non-embryonic sources. The extraction of stem cells from such sources as umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, fat and placentas does not harm the donor.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. 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 58 ailments, according to Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.

ORDER, NOT LAW — Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich could not convince legislators to underwrite destructive embryonic stem cell research, so he found a way to do so without them.

The Democratic governor issued an executive order July 12 directing the state Department of Health to establish the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute and to provide $10 million in grants for research on stem cells, including those extracted from embryos, who are destroyed in the process. Blagojevich acted after the state legislature failed to pass a measure to fund such research.

Pro-life leaders in Illinois decried the action.

John Kilner, president of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (CBHD) in suburban Chicago, called the executive order an “imposition of morally problematic research on the citizens of Illinois. The people have already spoken through the democratic process -– legislation to promote this research failed in the General Assembly.”

Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, described the move as an “end-run around the legislative process to fund research that advances a utilitarian agenda in which the end justifies the means.”

C. Ben Mitchell, a CBHD senior fellow and consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “The governor’s action is not only morally reprehensible but should be a signal to every Illinois voter. If he will not protect the most vulnerable among us, he cannot be trusted to protect the rest of us.”

Blagojevich’s action made Illinois the fourth state to underwrite embryonic stem cell research. California, Connecticut and New Jersey also provide state funds for such experimentation.

The executive order also directs the new institute to fund research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources. Extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources does not harm the donors.

In announcing his order, Blagojevich said in a written statement, “Since the federal government has chosen to stall the medical advancements that will come with stem cell research, it is up to the states to take action. We cannot allow our citizens to suffer when relief may be available.”

Blagojevich’s claims on federal policy and research, at least regarding embryonic stem cells, appear skewed at best. The federal policy, instituted by President Bush in 2001, limits government funds only for stem cell research that results in embryo destruction. There have been no reports of successful therapies using embryonic stem cells, but non-embryonic stem cells have been used to treat 58 different ailments, according to Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics.

PILL DECISION SET — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set a Sept. 1 deadline for deciding whether it will permit over-the-counter (OTC) sale of a “morning-after” pill that many pro-life advocates oppose as an abortifacient.

If the application of Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc. is approved, the New Jersey-based firm would be able to sell the Plan B “emergency contraceptive” without a prescription to women 16 years of age and older. Plan B is now available by prescription only.

The FDA rejected a request from Barr in May 2004 for OTC sales, citing a lack of evidence about the pill’s effect on girls 16 and younger. It gave the company an option of reapplying for OTC sales for females 16 and older and prescription sales for girls 15 and younger. Barr resubmitted its request under those guidelines.

The pill works by restricting ovulation in a woman. Supporters argue it will prevent unplanned pregnancies and abortions. Foes of “emergency contraception” say the method also can work after conception, blocking implantation of a tiny embryo in the uterine wall. In such a case, an abortion occurs, pro-lifers point out.

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. In addition to Plan B, the FDA has approved prescription use of another “morning-after” pill, Preven.

Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Patty Murray of Washington had placed a hold on the nomination of Lester Crawford as FDA commissioner until the agency took action on the Plan B application. After Michael Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, revealed the FDA timetable in a letter to senators, Clinton and Murray said July 15 they would release their hold on the nomination.