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U.S. Senate agrees to take up embryonic stem cell bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States Senate agreed June 29 to debate and vote on three bills regarding stem cell research, including a controversial measure that would fund experiments that destroy human embryos.

Senators approved without dissent a request by Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee to bring the proposals to the floor as a package. Under the agreement, the Senate will consider the:

— Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 810, which would provide federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos.

— Fetus Farming Prohibition Act, S. 3504, which would bar the acceptance of tissue from an embryo implanted or developed in a woman or animal for research purposes.

— Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, S. 2754, which would promote the development of embryo-like stem cells without creating or knowingly harming embryos.

No date was set for floor action, but it will not occur until after the Senate reconvenes July 10 following its Fourth of July recess.

Pro-life advocates strongly support the fetus farming measure, and at least some abortion opponents appear willing to back the alternative stem cell bill.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act is another matter. Pro-life organizations fervently oppose it, because of its destructive nature for embryos.

The Senate, however, is likely to pass the measure, which the House of Representatives approved last year despite a veto threat from President Bush. H.R. 810, which would underwrite research that uses surplus embryos from 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.

In May 2005, the House passed H.R. 810 in a 238-194 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. The Senate, however, appears nearer to a two-thirds majority. Supporters in the Senate need 67 votes for an override.

The White House confirmed June 29 the president intends to veto the bill.

Even Frist, a supporter of H.R. 810, said in a floor speech the bill “has deficiencies.” Under other circumstances, Frist said he would attempt to gain approval for some additional limitations on the proposal, including “a much stronger ethical and scientific oversight mechanism.”

Frist expressed unqualified support for the other two measures. Both are sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa.

Recent studies on two methods that apparently would be covered by S. 2754 have received support from some pro-lifers. 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 of a cell is placed in a fertilized egg. Some argue that no embryo is created; stem cells can be extracted from the resultant mass.

Extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources –- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow –- does not harm the donor and has produced treatments that have been peer-reviewed for at least 70 ailments, including 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.

Pro-lifers argue that the surplus embryos at fertility clinics should be donated to infertile couples through embryo adoption.

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