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Pro-lifers hope for Bush prohibition on stem-cell funds after HHS review

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush has decided for the time being not to issue a ban on federal funding of research using stem cells from human embryos, according to a published report. Instead, the president has ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to study the issue before any possible action is taken, the report said.

While Bush’s decision is a disappointment to many pro-life advocates, hope has been expressed he will still bar funds for such experimentation.

He is “cautiously optimistic,” said Ben Mitchell, biomedical consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We are hopeful that, in the end, the president will make the appropriate decision.

“President Bush needs to understand the important nuances of the issue before making his decision. Some forms of stem-cell research ought to be pursued with vigor. Other forms, such as stem-cell research which requires the destruction of a human embryo, ought to be banned.”

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said he is OK about the HHS review if action is taken before mid-March, the deadline set for grant applications for stem-cell research funds.

“I’m not concerned if they’re just trying to get it right,” Johnson said. It is “important that all the legal i’s be dotted and the t’s be crossed,” he said.

“We have a little time before any grants” are approved, Johnson said. Apparently, no federal funds have been spent so far on stem-cell research, he said.

Bush’s decision to refer to HHS the question of whether the federal government should fund research on embryos was reported by Roll Call editor Morton Kondracke Feb. 1. Roll Call is a twice-weekly newspaper reporting on Congress.

Stem cells are primitive cells from which a wide variety of tissue in the human body develops. Their isolation for the first time in late 1998 provided hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.

Pro-life advocates overwhelmingly have opposed such experimentation on human embryos, because it requires their destruction. Pro-lifers have supported the use of stem cells from such sources as placentas, umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow, because the killing of a human being is not required. Recent studies have shown stem cells from such sources can be effective.

The “means to reach the ends we seek” in research is critical, Mitchell said.

“We cannot apply a utilitarian calculus and hope to come out with the right answer,” said Mitchell, who is associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “There are certain ends which may be unattainable because the means to get there are immoral. Destroying living human embryos for research purposes is unconscionable.”

Bush has said he is opposed to federal funding of research using destroyed human embryos. He has not said, however, whether he would seek to rescind federal guidelines established in August by the National Institutes of Health that permit federally funding of research on stem cells as long as they are obtained from private sources.

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 as a violation of the federal law and of the sanctity of human life. They also said it was a presumptive move when stem cells from other sources have shown promise.

NRLC’s Johnson said he is hopeful Bush will ban funding for stem-cell research because of the president’s stated position and because the “law is unambiguous.”

The Republican National Coalition for Life called for the president to take immediate action. He should halt the NIH grant application process, issue an executive order blocking funds for embryonic stem-cell research and offer legislation making destructive embryo research that is privately funded a crime, the coalition said.

One area where Bush will not be able to reverse a policy by himself is in the funding of fetal-tissue research. On his second full day in office in 1993, President Clinton overturned a ban on federal funding of experimental transplantation of tissue from aborted babies. Congress has since codified that action, preventing NIH from interfering with grants for fetal-tissue research. While a president can enact some safeguards, he cannot prohibit funding of the research, Johnson said.

Bush acted on his second full day in the White House to rescind another Clinton act. The new president restored a ban on United States funds for organizations that perform or promote abortion in foreign countries. Clinton had reversed a rule, known as the Mexico City Policy, which was instituted by President Reagan in 1984.