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LIFE DIGEST: Stem cell debate at ‘crossroads,’ bioethics expert says; …

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush’s latest veto of a bill to fund stem cell research that destroys embryos and his order to support ethical experiments might be seen one day as part of the “beginning of the end” of the controversy, a pro-life bioethics specialist has said.

The president announced his rejection of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act at a June 20 White House ceremony. At the same event, Bush disclosed he had signed an executive order calling for the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the National Institutes of Health, to assure research on stem cells with embryonic-like qualities is eligible for federal funds if it does not harm embryos. His order also gave the NIH’s Embryonic Stem Cell Registry a new name, the Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry, “so it reflects what stem cells can do, instead of where they come from,” Bush said.

Bush’s dual action of the veto and executive order demonstrates “he, unlike the leaders of Congress, does understand that the basic premises of the debate are being radically revised, and for the better,” said Yuval Levin, director of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center’s program on bioethics.

Under the president’s order, “the NIH registry will now include all human stem cell lines with the abilities researchers have prized in embryonic stem cells, provided their development does not require the creation or destruction of embryos,” Levin wrote in a commentary for National Review Online. “The registry will therefore grow as new and ethically uncontroversial stem cell techniques march forward.”

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 referred to as “adult stem cells,” are regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types. Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the days-old human beings, while procuring non-embryonic stem cells does not.

Three studies announced in early June showed skin cells can be converted to embryonic-like cells in the laboratory. The research on mice found the skin cells could be formatted to be nearly identical to embryonic cells.

Bush’s order “marks a crucial turning point in the way the government understands the contours of stem cell science, and the way it defines its role in supporting that science,” wrote Levin, formerly the executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics. “It shows that the administration, unlike the Congress, has begun to catch up with stem cell research, and moved past the dispute over so-called ‘left over’ IVF embryos that is no longer of much relevance to the future of the field.”

The measure the president vetoed would provide funds for research using stem cells procured from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics.

Bush’s actions mean the debate on stem cells “is at a very significant crossroads,” Levin said. “Years from now, in retrospect, this period could well be seen as the beginning of the end of this divisive but important debate. The two premises of the dispute – our desire to advance promising medical research and our desire to respect and protect every human life – seem increasingly likely to reinforce each other, not oppose each other.”

The bill Bush vetoed would liberalize a policy he instituted in 2001 that prohibits federal grants for ESCR. His rule permits funds for research on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when the policy was announced.

Bush used the first veto of his presidency in July 2006 to nullify a similar bill.

SHUT DOWN IN JERSEY –- The New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services has closed an abortion clinic in Atlantic City, while acknowledging it had not inspected the facility in six years.

Inspections of such clinics are required to be conducted every other year. The department has been unable to keep up with the inspection schedule because of a staff shortage and the increase in the number of abortion clinics in the state, a spokesman said, according to The Press of Atlantic City.

HHS shut down the Alternatives clinic in Atlantic City for such violations as the lack of hot water for more than a year, as well as the absence of a sterilization sink and a mechanical ventilator, according to a letter from the department, the newspaper reported.

State pro-life leader Marie Tasy criticized HHS. “They need to do something to inform the women that frequented this clinic,” said Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, according to The Press. “Clearly there are grounds for a class-action lawsuit against an agency that has been derelict in its duty to protect the public’s health.”

HHS closed Metropolitan Medical Associates in Englewood earlier this year for about a month after a Newark hospital reported it had treated a women who nearly died after having an abortion at the clinic.

BANNED IN LOUISIANA –- The Louisiana House of Representatives approved June 25 a ban on partial-birth abortions, moving the state closer to being the first to prohibit the gruesome procedure since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law barring it.

Representatives voted 99-1 for the measure, a version of which the Senate approved unanimously earlier in the session. Negotiators from both the House and Senate still need to work out differences in the two versions before sending it to Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat. She is expected to sign the bill, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in April to uphold a 2003 law barring a procedure in which, as typically used, an intact baby is delivered feet first until only the head is left in the birth canal. The doctor pierces the base of the infant’s skull with surgical scissors before inserting a catheter into the opening and suctioning out the brain, killing the baby. The law allows an exception if the mother’s life is threatened.