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Pro-lifers urge Bush to fight fetal stem cell grants

WASHINGTON (BP)–Some pro-life leaders are calling on President Bush to seek to prevent federal funding of research on stem cells from unborn children aborted as much as eight weeks after conception.

The National Institutes of Health approved in May the first federal grant for such experimentation on stem cells from fetuses, the Chicago Tribune reported. While Bush acted last August to bar funding for new stem cell research on embryos up to two weeks old, the NIH action provides funds for even further developed babies.

Different rules apply to funding for unborn children past the embryonic stage, according to the July 7 Tribune report. Unlike funding for embryonic stem cell experimentation, research on stem cells obtained from more developed fetuses is covered by a federal law approved during the administration of President Clinton, who supported more lenient guidelines for such grants.

Bush is prevented from blocking such grants because Congress approved a law in 1993 preventing presidents from banning funds for such research, White House officials told the Tribune. The NIH reauthorization bill of that year prohibits the president and other executive branch officials, including the secretary of Health and Human Services, from barring support for fetal tissue research.

NIH informed the White House when the May grant was approved, administration spokesman Scott McClellan told the Tribune. Approval “was based on long-standing law and guidelines,” McClellan said, according to the newspaper.

Some pro-life advocates said the president still should act decisively to try to reverse that policy.

“The administration simply must rein in the NIH,” said Ben Mitchell, a biomedical consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It may be unfortunate that the president had to deal with this issue so early in his new administration, but that’s the way the government works. It’s critical that the policy loopholes get closed, and some of the policy loopholes at NIH are as huge as the Grand Canyon.

“Someone at NIH has to get his arms around all of the policies to bring about some measure of consistency,” said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. “We’re hoping the new head of NIH will do just that. If he doesn’t, we feel certain his tenure will be short.”

Bush has appointed Elias Zerhouni of Johns Hopkins University as the new NIH director.

Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, urged the president in a letter not to permit “the actions of federal bureaucrats in your administration to reduce your rhetoric to mere empty words.” The fetal stem cell grant “runs cross grain to your stated positions on abortion, fetal-tissue research and stem cell research, Connor told Bush.

Connor urged Bush to challenge the 1993 law or to campaign to reverse the law.

NIH’s May grant of $150,000 went to a team headed by John Gearhart at Johns Hopkins University, the Tribune reported. A Gearhart-led team was one of two to discover stem cells in 1998. His team separated stem cells from unborn babies that had been aborted at five to eight weeks of development.

According to the Tribune, Gearhart says his team has developed more than 150 stem-cell lines, or colonies, from aborted babies in research not funded by the government.

Stem cells are primitive cells from which cells and tissues in the human body develop. Their discovery has provided hope for treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes. Scientists largely have promoted embryonic stem cells for their effectiveness. The procurement of stem cells from embryos destroys the tiny human beings, however. Adult stem cells, which can be obtained without destroying human life, have proven effective in providing such cures. Pro-lifers support adult stem cell research.

Probably the most promising research using adult stem cells was revealed in January, when a University of Minnesota researcher was reported to have discovered a cell that “can turn into every single tissue in the body,” according to the New Scientist.

“With the rapid and encouraging advances in adult stem cell research, especially the research at the University of Minnesota, it’s unclear why NIH feels embryonic stem cell research is a good investment of research dollars anyway,” Mitchell said.

Last August, Bush announced he would allow funding for research on the more than 60 lines of existing stem cells “where the life-and-death decision has already been made.” The president said this would permit stem cell research “without crossing a fundamental moral line” of funding the destruction of human embryos.

At the time, ERLC President Richard Land, Mitchell and other pro-life leaders expressed disappointment with Bush’s decision to fund even research on existing lines. They acknowledged, however, his decision could have been worse.