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Don't veto stem cell bill.

Byline: The Register-Guard

President Bush showed remarkable courage and flexibility when he defied his conservative base in 2001 and authorized federal funding for limited embryonic stem cell research. He would do wonders for the hopes of millions of suffering Americans if he could call upon that same courage and flexibility to reconsider his threatened veto of the stem cell research bill passed by the House on Tuesday.

The fact that the Republican-controlled House voted 238-194 in favor of lifting Bush's 2001 restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is a dramatic indication of how much has changed in the past four years. Although the vote was well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, it included the support of many staunch Republican opponents of abortion.

That was a significant setback for the anti-abortion movement's efforts to equate the destruction of human embryos with abortion. It underscores that opposition to abortion exists on a continuum and does not fall into lock step with any unilateral agenda.

About 60 percent of Americans approve of using embryonic stem cells in medical research to find treatments and cures for diseases, according to recent polls. Support increases when people learn that the research sanctioned in the House bill would occur on embryos produced in fertility clinics that would have been discarded otherwise.

The political problem for opponents of embryonic stem cell research is that they are forced to take absolute, black-and-white positions on an issue that's awash in shades of gray. Adopting the view that human life and "personhood" begin at the moment of conception flatly rules out any possibility of embryonic stem cell research.

To extract the stem cells needed for laboratory experiments, fertilized embryos must be destroyed, an act indistinguishable in opponents' minds from abortion.

They use extreme language to emphasize the point: Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the House bill would force taxpayers to finance "the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation."

The reality doesn't approach DeLay's ghastly exaggeration. Stem cells are removed from fertilized embryos at the blastocyst stage, about 96 hours after fertilization. When 4-day-old blastocysts are destroyed, they are undifferentiated clusters of a couple of dozen cells less than 0.1-inch long, without an iota of human form. No organ structures exist, and there's not even the hint of a primitive brain. The tiniest insect is vastly more complex.

It isn't difficult for families that have watched loved ones succumb to Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, cancer or paralysis to resolve the moral questions in favor of exploring the promise of embryonic stem cell research. Just ask Nancy Reagan, or Christopher Reeve's wife, Dana. They have been joined by an increasingly diverse coalition of Democrats and Republicans from an array of religious faiths who believe the time has come to lift the ban on federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research.

The few stem cell lines Bush approved for federal funding in 2001 quickly proved inadequate for ongoing research because of a lack of genetic variety or potential contamination. As a result, hundreds of top U.S. scientists have left to do cut- ting-edge embryonic stem cell research in other countries.

In addition, states have taken matters into their own hands, creating a patchwork of conflicting laws and fierce competition for funding. Last November, California voters overwhelmingly approved a measure allowing the state to borrow $3 billion over 10 years to fund human embryonic stem cell research.

The measure now moves to the Senate, where Oregon Republican Gordon Smith has joined Sens. Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, Arlen Specter, Tom Harkin and Dianne Feinstein in urging Majority Leader Bill Frist to schedule a vote on the bill. Smith and other Senate supporters of stem cell research believe they have enough votes to stop a threatened filibuster.

There are many pieces of misguided legislation emanating from the current Congress that would be worthy objects for presidential criticism. But it would be a terrible mistake and a troubling legacy for the first veto in Bush's two-term presidency to fall on a responsible stem cell research bill that is a hallmark of compassionate conservatism.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; The House measure lifts ban on federal funding
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 26, 2005
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