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Senate to vote on stem cell bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States Senate is expected to vote to fund stem cell research that destroys embryos shortly after it returns from its Easter recess.

The Senate is scheduled to begin 20 hours of debate on embryonic stem cell research April 10, with consideration of the issue expected to conclude April 11. A vote on two bills, including one to provide federal funds for some embryonic research, will take place at the close of debate.

If the Senate approves the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (S. 5), it will challenge a policy instituted by President Bush in 2001 that prohibits grants for stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos. The bill, which is similar to one passed in January by the House of Representatives, would provide funds for research using stem cells procured from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the tiny human beings.

Last year, Bush vetoed legislation that would have funded research on embryos donated from IVF clinics and has declared his intention to do so again. Bush supports embryo adoption, a process whereby couples — particularly infertile ones — adopt surplus embryos. He also says public money should go toward promoting ethical stem cell research.

The Senate passed a similar bill last year in a 63-37 vote, so it may achieve the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. The House, however, fell far short of that mark when it approved its version this year. The House vote was 253-174. A veto override would require 290 votes to succeed if all House members vote.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other pro-life organizations oppose embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) because of its destructive nature.

ERLC President Richard Land said Bush’s position “is entirely consistent with what has been federal policy in these related areas since 1976,” when the Hyde Amendment was first adopted. The amendment is named for the measure’s sponsor, former Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, and continues to bar the use of Medicaid funds for abortion.

“The Hyde Amendment says that while abortion may be legal in the United States that it is such a controversial subject and offends the core moral values of so many millions of Americans that taxpayer funds should not be used to subsidize or assist in such medical procedures,” Land said. “This is precisely what the president is saying in vetoing federal funding of embryo destructive stem cell research.

“Unfortunately, embryonic stem cell research that causes the destruction of unborn babies is legal in the United States,” he said. “The only question at issue before the Congress is whether or not American taxpayers are going to be required to have their tax funds used to subsidize and aid and abet it.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., is the sponsor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. Reid’s bill also includes provisions promoting research that does not result in embryo destruction, but their presence has not converted ESCR opponents.

Land said citizens “who believe that embryo-destructive research is unconscionable, in that it requires the killing of our tiniest human beings in a so-far fruitless search to find imagined cures for the maladies and ailments of older and bigger human beings, should contact their senators immediately and let them know just how opposed they are to such legislation being passed. And they should contact the president and let him know how strongly they support his continuing stance of vetoing such legislation.”

Bush’s rule allows funds for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when his policy was announced in August 2001.

The other bill scheduled to be voted on by the Senate after 20 hours of debate is the Hope Offered Through Principled and Ethical Stem Cell Research Act (S. 30). Known as the HOPE Act, the bill is designed to promote efforts to derive stem cells with the qualities of those found in embryos -– and known as pluripotent cells — without creating embryos for experimentation or destroying them.

The ERLC has not taken a position on the HOPE Act.

Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, said he is encouraged about the bill’s emphasis on research into alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells. He shares the concerns of other pro-life groups, however, about a section of the bill that permits the extraction of stem cells from embryos that are “naturally dead.” Duke said he needs to know more about the criteria used to determine that an embryo is dead before he can recommend the ERLC support the bill.

Both bills must receive 60 votes to pass under the rules agreed upon for their consideration, a Senate aide said.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources — such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow — has nearly universal support. Such research, which is funded by the federal government, does not harm the donor and has produced treatments for at least 72 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.

Many scientists contend embryonic stem cells have more therapeutic potential than their non-embryonic counterparts, but embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.