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President signs H.R. 2520 into law, funding stem cell research of umbilical cord blood

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush signed into law Dec. 20 a bill to underwrite stem cell research that does not harm donors.

The Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act, H.R. 2520, provides federal funds for the collection, testing and storage of stem cells from umbilical cord blood. It authorizes $79 million for work on cord blood stem cells and will establish a network for doctors and patients to access in an effort to find matches.

Research using stem cells from cord blood is harmless, unlike embryonic stem cell experimentation, which requires the destruction of human embryos.

Southern Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke called the bill signing a “marvelous early Christmas present.”

“Today marked a great moment in our effort to support the sanctity of human life,” Duke told Baptist Press after attending the signing ceremony in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. He is vice president for public policy and research of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “While scientists are still trying to find a way to put embryo destructive stem cell research to work, adult stem cell research is already bringing hope and healing to the suffering.

“I look forward to hearing in the years to come of the many people who will be helped because these stem cell cord blood banks have been made possible.”

Bush signed the bill only three days after Congress gave its final approval.

The House of Representatives had passed the legislation with a 431-1 vote in May, but 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.

“All who treasure life, both unborn and born, should applaud the passage of this bill,” ERLC President Richard Land told BP after the congressional action.

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, sickle cell anemia, heart damage and a variety of cancers.

“Thousands of Americans who might have otherwise continued to suffer or died will now be saved because larger and diverse inventories of umbilical cord stem cells will be available,” said Rep. Christopher Smith, R.-N.J., the bill’s sponsor. “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.”

Duke said, “I commend the House and Senate for their nonpartisan passage of this bill, and I commend the president and his administration for their unflagging commitment to life. May the Lord grant us many more successes for life in the coming year.”

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 new law also provides $186 million for the reauthorization of the national bone marrow transplant system.

The ERLC and other pro-life organizations oppose embryonic stem cell research because of its destructive nature, but they support research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources.

In October, Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., sponsor of a Harkin-backed bill to permit federal 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.