- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 4, 2005

While Congress is in recess contemplating how to move forward on unfinished business such as the budget, one important piece of legislation that is being held up in the Senate purely for political reasons is a bill to fund umbilical cord-blood collection, storage and use for patients. The Senate Democrats should quit politicizing this bill in order to obtain a vote on embryonic stem-cell research, research that has cured no one.

Instead, when it returns to Washington, the Senate should immediately pass the cord-blood stem-cell bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith and by Sen. Orrin Hatch. This bill could actually save many more lives. I say “many more” lives because cord-blood transplants have already saved thousands of lives, and by increasing the amount of stored cord-blood and research on cord-blood stem cells, this bill will save thousands more.

Cord-blood stem cells have been used to treat upwards of 67 different diseases in humans. Cord blood, both effective and non-controversial, was endorsed on May 25, when the House passed the cord-blood bill (H.R. 2520) by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 431-1. However, the media paid more attention to the fight over another stem-cell bill, H.R. 810, a bill the president threatened to veto because it would use taxpayer money to fund research that requires the destruction of human embryos. The House passed H.R. 810 by a vote of 238-194, 50 votes shy of overturning a Bush veto. So there was little surprise that this bill would not sail smoothly through the Senate. However, the cord-blood stem-cell bill was expected to move quickly, since it is non-controversial and, after all, humans are actually being treated with cord-blood stem cells.

At first, the Senate attempted to package a series of votes on several bills dealing with embryonic stem-cell funding, human cloning, human chimeras and the cord-blood bill. Unfortunately, senators could not agree on this package because, reportedly, some Senate Democrats, who wanted an up-or-down vote on the House-passed embryonic stem-cell bill, did not want an up-or-down vote on Sen. Sam Brownback’s bill to ban human cloning. Stalemate resulted, with the cord-blood bill held as political hostage.

On Oct. 6, a bipartisan group of representatives held a press conference with NBA legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving (who has fought for expansion of this therapy especially for sickle-cell anemia), and scientists and patients who have been successfully treated with cord blood. All urged the Senate to pass the cord-blood bill. Patients included Spencer Barsh, 5, who was treated for ALD (the disease featured in the movie “Lorenzo’s Oil”); Keone Penn, 19, who was treated for sickle-cell disease; and Stephen Sprague, 57, who was treated for leukemia. Bipartisan support for quick Senate action was exemplified at the press conference, with Mr. Smith, chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus, and Rep. Artur Davis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, agreeing on the importance of Senate action.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has made a good-faith effort to pass this non-controversial legislation apart from the other bills. On Oct. 24, Mr. Frist “hotlined” S. 1317, the cord-blood bill sponsored by Mr. Hatch, in an effort to move it quickly through the Senate. Even senators who have been trying to overturn Mr. Bush’s policy on embryonic stem-cell funding, such as Sen. Arlen Specter, signed off on the strategy to separate the cord-blood bill from the other controversial bills. Incredibly, Senate Democrats objected, essentially demanding that the bill be held hostage until they get a vote on embryonic stem cells sometime next year.

Democrats have repeatedly accused Republicans of putting politics before science. In truth, Senate Democrats are the ones who are playing politics with stem cells. Cord-blood stem cells have shown the flexibility to form virtually every type of tissue in the human body. They are less susceptible to transplant rejection than bone marrow or embryonic stem cells. They have successfully treated a host of diseases, including leukemias, sickle cell and other anemias, fatal genetic diseases in newborns, and at least one spinal-cord injury patient.

While mothers can opt to save the cord-blood stem cells from their child’s placenta after delivery, or donate them to public banks, millions of umbilical cords are discarded each year as medical waste. The cord-blood bill would help change that by using federal funding to expand the national inventory of cord-blood stem cells, ensuring that physicians have access to a centralized network for obtaining these stem cells.

Senate Democrats should stop playing politics with lifesaving cures and should agree to move the cord-blood bill immediately. Patients’ lives are at stake.

David Christensen is the director of congressional affairs at the Family Research Council.

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