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Stem cell bills approach vote in U.S. Congress

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science CorrespondentMon May 23, 6:58 PM ET

Supporters and opponents of embryonic stem cell research ratcheted up arguments ahead of votes on rival bills in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Each side produced patients, polls and scientific studies to support their positions on Monday.

One bill, offered by Republican Mike Castle of Delaware and Democrat Diana DeGette of Colorado, would promote the use of embryos left over from fertility treatments in embryonic stem cell research.

Current law forbids the use of federal funding to destroy human embryos, but in 2001 President Bush made an exception for embryonic stem cell lines that existed at the time of his announcement.

An alternative offered by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith and Alabama Democrat Artur Davis would instead boost research using blood from umbilical cords as a source of stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are the master cells of the body, produced during the very first days after conception.

Scientists hope one day they could provide tailored therapy for a range of diseases and conditions, including juvenile diabetes or spinal cord injuries. So-called adult stem cells also hold this promise but many experts maintain research on all sources needs to go ahead.

Last week South Korean scientists said they had taken a first step toward this promise, using cloning technology to take a plug of skin from nine different patients, male and female, adults and children, to produce batches of stem cells genetically identical to the patients.

The National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group that also opposes embryo research, said the research made a ban on so-called therapeutic cloning all the more urgent.

STEPPING STONE

"H.R. 810 (the Castle-DeGette bill) is certainly a stepping stone toward human cloning," the group said in a statement.

It cited a poll that found nearly 52 percent of U.S. adults opposed federal funding for experiments using stem cells from human embryos.

But polls have also shown that, depending on the wording of the question, up to 70 percent of U.S. adults surveyed support embryonic stem cell research.

"Stem cell research holds much promise in the search for better treatment and for a cure for the more than 18 million Americans with diabetes," said Lynn Nicholas, Chief Executive Officer of the American Diabetes Association.

Castle and DeGette have won converts in the House with their arguments that embryos left over from in vitro fertilization or IVF attempts could provide a useful source of stem cells for research.

"There's about 400,000 embryos there. About 2 percent a year are disposed of," Castle told a news conference.

Opponents argue that those embryos could be adopted. But Pamela Madsen, Executive Director of the American Fertility Association, said not all parents want to do that.

"Just as not every couple can give a child up for adoption, not every couple is comfortable with donating an embryo for another couple's family building," said Madsen, mother of an IVF child.

"If I were a mother of a child who suffered from diabetes or a spinal cord injury, I would hope some other mother would be willing to donate an excess embryo to help my child."

The argument does not fall along partisan lines, nor is it clearly an abortion issue. Some anti-abortion conservatives such as California Republican Randy Cunningham also support the Castle-DeGette bill.

Smith's bill would encourage research using umbilical cord blood as a source of stem cells, and his supporters cite studies showing that these cells can also be transformed into tissue for transplants.

Experts say these cells should also be used in research -- but not to the exclusion of embryonic stem cells.

Bush has said he would veto the Castle-DeGette bill if passed.

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Court to decide abortion parental notice law

By James ViciniMon May 23, 3:35 PM ET

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed for the first time in five years to decide an abortion law, one of the most contentious issues for the court since its landmark ruling over 30 years ago that made abortion legal.

The high court said it would review a New Hampshire law that requires parental notification before a minor can obtain an abortion and will take up the politically charged case during its next term that begins in October.

Arguments in the case are expected to be held in December, with a decision likely in the first half of next year.

Since the 1973 Roe V Wade ruling, opponents of abortion have fought hard against it, sometimes in violent protests, while those who support abortion rights vigorously oppose any moves by Congress, the White House or state legislatures to dilute such rights.

The Supreme Court last ruled on an abortion law in 2000, when it struck down by a 5-4 vote a Nebraska law that banned one type of abortion.

A federal judge and then a U.S. appeals court declared the New Hampshire law unconstitutional. The appeals court said it lacked provisions for an exception in the event of a medical emergency.

The law requires that a parent or guardian be notified 48 hours in advance of any abortion on a woman under 18.

The Supreme Court last ruled on such parental notification laws for minors in 1990, when the justices upheld a law that required parental notification before an abortion.

The court in that case also upheld an alternative procedure under which minors may get approval from a judge instead of telling a parent. The New Hampshire law has such a procedure under which a minor can get approval from a judge, instead of notifying her parent or guardian.

New Hampshire officials said in their appeal to the Supreme Court that the law "preserves the health and life of the minor" through the judicial approval procedure and through other state laws.

They also asked the justices to clarify the legal standard when reviewing the constitutionality of abortion laws.

The law had been challenged by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and by others. They said the law was unconstitutional because it lacked an exception to preserve a pregnant minor's health.

"We are surprised and disappointed the Supreme Court has decided to hear this case," said Planned Parenthood Federation of America Interim President Karen Pearl.

"Yet we are confident that this court will reaffirm a woman's right to abortion access. States should never put women's health at risk," she said in a statement.

Supporters of the law welcomed Supreme Court review.

"This is a critical area of the law that needs to be corrected," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. "We are hopeful the high court will determine that parental notification laws enacted by states are proper and constitutional."