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Tactics against alternative cell bill ‘anti-science, anti-life’

WASHINGTON (BP)–Is embryonic-like research that produces results without death not enough for some members of Congress? Will they be satisfied only with government funding of experiments that destroy life?

That is what some pro-life advocates were asserting after the House of Representatives failed July 18 to pass a bill that would have underwritten research to develop embryo-like stem cells without creating or knowingly harming tiny human beings. The House voted 273-154 for the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, S. 2754, achieving a strong majority but one that was 12 votes short of the two-thirds margin needed under the rules that applied in this case.

As the vote approached in the evening hours, Rep. Michael Castle, R.-Del., issued an alert to his House colleagues urging them to oppose S. 2754. He said the research to be funded by the measure would be “time wasted” on “highly speculative” methods and redundant, according to a description by Rep. Dave Weldon, R.-Fla. Castle’s charges came after the Senate had approved the same bill in a 100-0 vote.

Castle is the lead sponsor of a bill that would grant funds to stem cell research that requires the destruction of embryos. The Senate had passed his measure in a 63-37 vote earlier the same day. The House had approved the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 810, last year. President Bush, however, had promised to veto Castle’s bill, a pledge he carried out July 19.

Castle’s late effort worked, helping convince 138 Democrats, 15 Republicans and an independent to oppose the alternative stem cell bill.

“Supporters of H.R. 810 have consistently said that they support all avenues of stem cell research … until today,” said Weldon in a written statement after the House vote. “Tonight the mask came off, and we now know this: They want to exclude all science except that which requires the killing of embryos. That is as [ghastly] a position as I’ve seen in all my years on the Hill.

“They have the gall to say with a straight face that the methods outlined in the alternatives bill are ‘fake research,’ a ‘distraction’ and that they hold ‘no real promise.’ Unfortunately, the very researchers they so often tout in favor of H.R. 810 are publishing papers in high profile journals confirming the promise of these alternative methods of creating embryo-like stem cells without destroying an embryo,” Weldon said.

Richard Doerflinger, a pro-life leader in Washington in his post with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Castle’s attack “reveals a new and more intolerant side to the ideology of the embryonic stem cell campaign. Now it is not enough to include embryo destruction in the category of acceptable biomedical research –- one must wed oneself to embryo destruction, forsaking all other avenues. One must insist that stem cell research must not move forward to advance knowledge or treat diseases unless it involves destroying human life.

“This is a dark and narrow vision of science that sets it directly at odds with morality and common sense,” Doerflinger said in his piece published at National Review Online. “In the end, it is as anti-science as it is anti-life.”

Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land expressed disappointment enough House members “decided to play politics” to defeat the legislation.

“This is tragic, because this research could lead in the very near future to being able to develop embryonic-like stem cells without having to kill an embryo in order to harvest such cells,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Until the House defeat, the president had planned to sign the alternative stem cells bill, as well as a funding ban on “fetus farming,” July 19. Instead, Bush signed the measure barring the acceptance of tissue from an embryo implanted or developed in a woman or animal for research purposes.

In the same ceremony, Bush vetoed Castle’s bill. In all likelihood, Congress will be unable to override the veto. Neither the Senate nor House achieved a two-thirds majority, which is required for an override, in approving the legislation.

Castle’s bill, which would underwrite research that uses embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics, is designed to liberalize a Bush policy prohibiting federal funds for stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos. Bush’s rule allows funds for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when his policy was announced in 2001.

It is possible the House could vote in this session on S. 2754 when only a majority is needed for passage.

S. 2754 would require the funding of research into methods to procure pluripotent stem cells, which can develop into many kinds of cells and tissue, without creating or harming human embryos. The legislation would not endorse a specific method.

At least two methods have been proposed that might be covered by S. 2754. One, known as reprogramming, shows promise of returning body cells to their embryonic-like qualities, thereby making them potentially more effective in treating diseases. Another, known as altered nuclear transfer (ANT), is a modification of cloning in which genes are switched off before the nucleus is placed in a fertilized egg. Reportedly, no embryo is created, but stem cells can be extracted from the resultant mass.

Unlike research on embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources –- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow – does not harm the donor. Non-embryonic stem cells were not initially considered as promising in their effect as embryonic cells, but they have 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.

Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.