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LIFE DIGEST: Senators rip ACT’s hype on stem cell study; abortion causing population woes in Europe; …

WASHINGTON (BP)–Even leading congressional promoters of embryonic stem cell research have criticized Advanced Cell Technology’s much-hyped report that it had found an ethical way to do such experiments.

Sens. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, both advocates for funding stem cell research that destroys embryos, took turns lambasting ACT Vice President Robert Lanza at a Sept. 6 hearing on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a big black eye if scientists are making false and inaccurate representations,” Specter told Lanza in a hearing of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, according to The Washington Post.

Lanza was clearly disturbed by the criticism during the hearing, The Post reported, telling the senators, “Our paper is 100 percent correct.”

While the paper may have been accurate, Lanza and ACT issued statements that proved misleading.

“What we have done, for the first time, is to actually create human embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo itself,” Lanza said on the Aug. 23 podcast for the journal Nature.

ACT, a biotech firm in Worcester, Mass., reported the same day that its scientists had “successfully generated human embryonic stem cells (hES cells) using an approach that does not harm embryos.”

In a news release about the study published in its pages, Nature said only one cell had been extracted from each embryo, making a mistake it soon corrected.

The news media reported the study as a significant breakthrough that might end the controversy over the cells that supposedly have great potential for treating debilitating diseases but so far have required the destruction of a human embryo in order to extract them.

Some pro-life bioethicists quickly pointed out, however, the technique not only remained unethical but it actually was not used by the researchers. The ACT team, led by Lanza, actually took from four to seven cells from each of 16 embryos, destroying all of them in the process.

Wesley Smith, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, said ACT and the news media “simply took a leap of faith and portrayed an experiment showing that something might be possible as if the feat had already been accomplished. This is not to say, of course, that deriving embryonic stem cell lines from a procedure that allows the embryo to survive is impossible –- only that it hasn’t been done.”

When Lanza appeared at the Senate hearing, Specter and Harkin clearly were upset about the potential injury his firm may have inflicted upon the movement to fund embryonic stem cell research

“ACT should have made it more clear from the beginning that none of the embryos survived,” Harkin said. The stem cell arena has “been hyped too much. We need to come back to Earth,” he said, The Post reported.

Stem cell research that destroys embryos is legal in the United States but is not funded by the federal government. In July, President Bush vetoed a bill supported by Specter and Harkin that would have weakened his policy barring federal grants for experiments that result in the destruction of embryos. The legislation would have underwritten research that uses embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Bush’s rule allows funds for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when his policy was announced in 2001.

The federal government provides funds for non-embryonic stem cell research.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources –- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– 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.

Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

“Where we are really seeing progress is with adult stem cells. Patients need cures, not press clippings. They need science, not smoke,” said Dave Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, in a written statement.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues. The remarkable ability of stem cells has given hope for the development of cures for a variety of diseases and other ailments. Embryonic stem cells are considered “pluripotent,” meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Non-embryonic stem cells (often called “adult stem cells”) are regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types. Research on some non-embryonic cells has provided hope that their potential may be as great as that of embryonic cells.

Pro-life bioethicists said the method of taking one cell from an eight-cell embryo to develop a stem cell line would not resolve the moral problems. They pointed out the method would destroy the single cell, which, at that stage, is “totipotent,” meaning it could develop into an embryo. They also said it is uncertain what the long-term effect would be on a remaining embryo who has lost part of his genetic material.

NOT ENOUGH BABIES –- Legalized abortion is contributing to a major population crisis in Europe, according to a new report.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported birth rates have fallen dramatically since 1990, threatening the ability of the European countries to replace their populations, Lifenews.com reported. If abortion had been illegal, the problems probably would not have occurred, according to LifeNews.

Abortion “has turned childbearing into a choice rather than an act of nature,” said Jitka Rychtarikova, a demographics professor at Charles University in the Czech Republic, according to The New York Times.

In 1990, all countries in Europe had birth rates higher than 1.3 children per woman, LifeNews reported. By 2002, however, 15 countries had rates of less than 1.3, while the rates in six other countries were less than 1.4. A country needs a rate of 2.1 to sustain its population.

Tomas Sobotka of the Vienna Institute of Demography told The Times, “If you have a fertility rate of 1.2 or 1.3, you need to do something about it -– it’s really quite a problem. You have labor problems, economic problems and steep rates of population decline.”

Another reason for the population decline is the increased age when women have children for the first time, The Times reported.

No countries seem to be contemplating a revision of their abortion laws, though some are planning to expand maternity leave or provide other rewards for large families, according to LifeNews.

Ireland, one of the few European countries without legal abortion, has the highest fertility rate, LifeNews reported.

HOLD THAT BILL -– An Oregon senator wasted no time in halting a bill that could gut the practice of physician-assisted suicide in his state.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., placed a “hold” on the Assisted Suicide Prevention Act Sept. 5, the first day of business after the August congressional recess. Wyden’s procedural move means supporters will need 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber in order to bring the bill up for a vote.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., had introduced the measure Aug. 3, the final day before the Senate went into recess. The bill, S. 3788, would prohibit federally controlled drugs from being used for the purpose of assisted suicide.

“This proposed legislation sends voters the message that if Congress doesn’t like the conclusion your state comes to through a ballot initiative, your vote doesn’t matter,” Wyden said in a news release announcing his action. “The bottom line is that my colleagues should respect my state’s decision.”

Brownback and other supporters of his bill, however, contend Congress has the right to control how drugs it supervises are used.

“When the law permits killing as a medical ‘treatment,’ society’s moral guidelines are blurred, and killing could gain acceptance as a solution for the chronically ill or vulnerable,” Brownback said in a written statement when he introduced the bill. “Doctor-assisted suicide could actually create a financial incentive for insurance companies to encourage prematurely ending the lives of those in need of long-term care.”

Assisted suicide, which involves a physician prescribing but not administering a drug to take a person’s life, became legal in Oregon in 1997 after being approved by the state’s voters. Oregon remains the only state to legalize the act.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oregon in a 6-3 decision. The high court said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft went beyond his authority when he issued a 2001 order that basically barred physicians from giving lethal amounts of drugs to patients.