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LIFE DIGEST: Times’ negative report on parental involvement laws flawed, prof says; Frist under pressure for stem cell vote

WASHINGTON (BP)–The New York Times reported March 6 parental involvement laws have not produced a notable reduction in abortions among underage girls, but a political science professor said his analysis “tells a considerably different story.”

The Times found a variety of trends in its analysis of the statistics on teen abortion rates in six states that enacted laws in the last 10 years requiring a minor to notify a parent or receive permission from a parent before undergoing the procedure.

All but five states have passed some form of parental involvement law, but only 28 are both effective and in effect, according to the National Right to Life Committee. Some states have adopted flawed measures that either allow abortion doctors an integral role in the decision or permit the involvement of a non-parental adult, according to NRLC. Courts have blocked enforcement of some other laws, NRLC reported.

The Times’ examination of six states -– Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia –- revealed no evidence a parental involvement law significantly affected the number of underage pregnancies or abortions or the abortion rate.

There are “some significant shortcomings” in The Times’ study, said Michael New, assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Alabama. He cited these in a column for National Review Online:

— The data used by The Times are from state health departments, which normally are not as reliable as those from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

— Statistics were used from only half of the roughly 12 states that have approved parental involvement laws since the mid-1990s.

— Properly analyzing the “percentage of abortions among pregnancies,” as The Times chose to do, is difficult, since the number of births to teens is small. Doing the analysis on this basis does not provide insight into whether parental involvement laws may decrease abortions by altering teens’ sexual behavior.

Using data from the CDC and the Census Bureau, New studied the teen abortion rates in the six states examined by The Times and found marked reductions in three. The teen abortion rates in South Dakota and Virginia, which both passed parental notification laws in 1997, have fallen by more than 33 percent. Texas’ teen abortion rate has declined by 25 percent since it enacted a parental notification law in 2000.

Parental involvement laws appear to have had little immediate impact in Idaho and Tennessee, New said. Idaho, however, already possessed one of the lowest teen abortion rates in the United States before it enacted a parental consent law, and Tennessee saw a dramatic decline in its teen abortion rate the year before its parental consent law was approved in 2000.

New was unable to study Arizona, because the CDC did not have information on that state after its parental consent law took effect in 2003.

He pointed to other evidence of the impact of parental involvement laws that was ignored by The Times. Mississippi, Minnesota and Nebraska enacted parental involvement laws in the early 1990s and reported declines of about 50 percent in the teen abortion rate by the end of the decade. Also, academic studies have reported “solid statistical evidence” that parental involvement laws produce fewer abortions among teens, New said.

“My own research indicates that parental involvement laws reduce the abortion rate among teens but have considerably less impact on the overall abortion rate,” New said. “The fact that teen abortion rates decline while overall abortion rates remain fairly constant shows that these parental involvement laws are likely responsible for the abortion declines and not broad shifts in values or mores that happen to be correlated with the passage of legislation.”

PRESSURE ON FRIST –- Democrats and some Republicans in the U.S. Senate are pressuring Majority Leader Bill Frist for a floor vote on legislation to fund stem cell research that destroys human embryos.

In a March 3 speech to the Senate, Minority Leader Harry Reid called for Frist to schedule debate and a vote before May 24, the first anniversary of the House of Representative’s passage of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. Reid registered his dissatisfaction with Frist’s failure to bring the bill to the Senate floor, saying the majority leader had promised a vote in July and still had not delivered.

“We simply cannot continue to delay legislation that could produce stunning medical breakthroughs,” Reid said, according to his prepared remarks.

While Reid is leading the Democrats’ effort to gain a vote, Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Orrin Hatch of Utah plan to resume the planning meetings they held in July in an effort to gain passage, according to The Hill newspaper. Specter is the Senate sponsor of the legislation, which has 41 cosponsors, all but five Democrats. Also, the Republican Main Street Partnership, which has eight Senate members, will sponsor television ads for the bill in states represented by senators who are uncommitted, The Hill reported.

The legislation 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.

The president has promised to veto legislation that overturns his policy. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 810, passed the House in a 238-194 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. It would underwrite research that uses embryos left over at in vitro fertilization clinics.

Though he has not brought the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, Frist endorsed federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in July, reversing his previous position.

Reid’s assertion of possible “stunning medical breakthroughs” through embryonic stem cell research has little to support it in the way of evidence. 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 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.

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. In addition to being extracted from embryos, the cells may be found in such non-embryonic sources as bone marrow, fat and placentas, as well as umbilical cord blood. Extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources does not harm the donor.

PRIESTS SCOLD CATHOLICS –- Fifty-five Roman Catholics in the House of Representatives have signed onto a “statement of principles” about the effect of their faith on their public service, but at least two priests were not pleased with the way the document addressed the abortion issue.

In the document, released Feb. 28, the signers say they agree with their church “about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion -– we do not celebrate its practice. Each of us is committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term.”

They also say they are committed to “protecting the most vulnerable among us.”

Of the 55 signers, 33 voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion when it was up for final passage in 2003. The measure, which President Bush signed into law in November of that year, prohibits a procedure used by some doctors in which an intact baby is delivered normally 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, then inserts a catheter into the opening and suctions out the brain.

“To fail to protect the unborn, and then to say that you are ‘committed to … protecting the most vulnerable among us’ is a blatant contradiction,” said Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, in a written release. “This statement tries to soften the contradiction between creating a just society and tolerating legal abortion.”

Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, was even more emphatic in his criticism, saying the statement “is nothing more than Washington-speak for: ‘We support abortion on demand, and we do not care what the Church teaches.’”

The signers “have made it clear that they have chosen loyalty to their party’s platform supporting abortion on demand over their church’s teachings on the sanctity of life and the dignity of the unborn child …,” Euteneuer said in a written statement.