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Pressure mounts on Bush as stem-cell decision nears

WASHINGTON (BP)–The pressure is mounting on President Bush as the country awaits word from the White House on whether the federal government will fund stem-cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos.

It is expected the White House will reveal in July a decision on the hotly debated subject of funding for embryonic stem-cell research. While medical researchers are lobbying for federal funds for such research, pro-life organizations, including the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, are calling for the denial of such funding because procurement of the cells from early human embryos requires their destruction.

Though Bush has said he opposes research that involves the destruction of embryos, it appears possible his decision on stem-cell research will not adhere to that position. High-ranking officials in the administration are split over whether to allow funding for such research, according to news reports.

There also is some division among members of Congress who normally cast pro-life votes. Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina are among those who have expressed support for funding embryonic stem-cell research.

Meanwhile, three Republican leaders in the House of Representatives issued a July 2 statement calling on Bush to prohibit embryonic stem-cell funding.

“The federal government cannot morally look the other way with respect to the destruction of human embryos, then accept and pay for extracted stem cells for the purpose of medical research,” wrote Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Conference Chairman J.C. Watts. “It is not pro-life to rely on an industry of death, even if the intention is to find cures for diseases.”

The controversy about stem cells has intensified since researchers first isolated in 1998 the primitive cells from which cells and tissues in the human body develop. That achievement provided hope for treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.

Pro-life organizations, including the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, oppose embryonic stem-cell experimentation while supporting types of stem-cell research that do not destroy human beings.

Recent studies have shown stem cells from such sources as umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow can be effective. Recent research also has resulted in the production of cartilage, muscle and bone cells in the laboratory from cells found in human fat.

Meanwhile, two recent reports have signaled the potential for problems with using embryonic stem cells as therapies. Cloning experiments utilizing embryonic stem cells from mice showed the cells to be “surprisingly genetically unstable,” The Washington Post reported July 6. Scientists may confront unexpected obstacles if human embryonic stem cells share the same problem, according to The Post. The report was made in the new issue of the journal Science.

In March, a report showed a study using fetal stem cells in Parkinson’s disease patients failed to demonstrate a benefit and also had crippling side effects. The research results, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed the cells grew too much in about 15 percent of patients, causing them to jerk uncontrollably.

A confidential study by the National Institutes of Health said embryonic stem cells are superior to adult stem cells in their potential, The New York Times reported June 27. The report recommends federal funding for research using both embryonic and adult stem cells.

The White House is seeking a compromise, according to news reports. The New York Times cited three possible options July 4: (1) Allow federal funding of research on already established cell lines, or colonies, while barring funds for the development of more lines; (2) permit federally funded research until scientists believe enough cell lines have been developed, and (3) fund organizations that finance research, enabling the groups to use their private money for stem-cell experimentation.

None of those alternatives would be acceptable to pro-life organizations, because they still would make the government complicit in destroying embryos. The research industry appears unlikely to approve of at least some of those options.

“Human embryonic stem-cell research is illegal, immoral and unnecessary,” said Ben Mitchell, biomedical consultant for the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We simply cannot allow the destruction of one group of human beings for the sake of experimental research to treat another group of human beings. Human embryos deserve at least the right not to be unnecessarily harmed.”

ERLC President Richard Land and Mitchell wrote Bush in early March asking him to clarify his position by repealing the NIH guidelines. The ERLC joined nine other pro-life organizations in another letter at about the same time making the same request of the president. The other groups signing the letter included the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council and National Association of Evangelicals.

An attempt by NIH last August to find a way to encourage embryonic research brought protests from pro-lifers inside and outside Congress. The NIH guidelines, which were placed under review by Bush after he took office in January, would allow federal funds to be used for the study of stem cells from human embryos but not for the actual act of deriving such cells and thereby destroying the embryos. The extraction of the cells has to be privately funded to fit within NIH rules.

Congress adopted a measure in 1996 prohibiting federal support for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” The ERLC, as well as pro-life leaders in Congress and other pro-life organizations, criticized the NIH action last year as a violation of the federal law and of the sanctity of human life.