Politics & Policy

Cut The Political Cord

Lifesaving medicine is being held up in the Senate.

In May the House of Representatives passed the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act by a vote of 431-1. Wait! Don’t go anywhere! Even if your eyes glaze over at the embryonic-stem-cell-research debate, this vote was different. There are no ethical problems, controversies, or confusions about it, hence the one-sided vote-count. So pay attention.

This legislation, now in the Senate, would increase the amount of cord blood available for medicinal use and research. Cord blood, from umbilical cords, comes with every human child. Umbilical-cord blood is rich in stem cells and you don’t have to destroy an embryo to have it or make use of it. But of some four million babies born each year in the U.S., most cords are cut and ditched. Parents who know about the value of the cords sometimes chose to put them in private banks, at their expense, for potential use by their families in the future. This bill, however, would create a national umbilical-cord bank, one that would be free of charge to donors, making a genetically mixed supply available for public use.

No one in the Senate has made a public peep against this bill. And yet, since May, the legislation has gone nowhere in the Senate. Advocates of the bill point to Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid, who is believed to be holding up the bill until he gets a promise on a vote on embryonic-stem-cell research–the more controversial, ethically questionable variety that is but a future hope and not a current working reality.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is likely to bring up the cord-blood bill for a unanimous-consent agreement today or tomorrow. Should Reid object, Congressman Christopher Smith (R., N.J.) told National Review Online Thursday afternoon, it “would be like saying ‘We’re not going to release this medicine we have now, ready to use.’” The delay, Smith says, is “cruelty.” He recalls that his first draft meeting on the legislation was held the week of September 11, 2001. Other things came up then, of course, but now, on the edge of 2006, the bill is still sitting. Smith notes that “If we wait until spring, that will have been a year of delay. . . . There are people dying of leukemia because we don’t have cord-blood stem cells.”

Delay is cruel to people like Jacklyn Albanese, whose life was saved by cord blood. It cured her leukemia. Same for Steven Sprague, who had a cord-blood transplant in 1997. At a Hill press conference, Sprague said,

I was told in 1997 to get my affairs in order. I was lucky to find a cord blood match and became one of the first adult cord blood transplant recipients. With the passage of this legislation, patients won’t need to be lucky to find a match. They will have the advantage of a cord blood inventory created by design, not chance. Patient’s will soon have another option and a new hope.

By the way, you can find Sprague’s story on New York Democrat Charlie Schumer’s website. You don’t get more liberal partisan than my senior senator, and yet he referred to the cord-blood bill as “an incredible opportunity to turn medical waste into medical miracles.”

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Regardless, the Schumer press release on the matter is dated June. It’s now ten days before Christmas.

Congress, and the Senate in particular, may be used to and overly comfortable with delays. But sick patients are a factor this time. Some people on the Hill understand this. According to Smith, “I know for a fact that members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have called Senator Reid and others” to press for passage of the bill. With one in every five hundred blacks suffering from sickle-cell anemia, it’s clear why CBC members are behind the bill. (There’s even celeb-power behind it: Dr. J was on the Hill in October talking it up.)

Moreover, the delay is completely unnecessary. As Smith points out, cord-blood research is free of “any ethical baggage.” The cord-blood bank is also an efficient use of government money, streamlining and standardizing a lifesaver.

Passage is not only vital, it’s a no-brainer. And it would send a message during the same week that Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, the celebrated stem-cell/cloner in South Korea, admitted that his famous research was not just unethical, as previously revealed, but faked. Passage of the cord-blood bill in the Senate would be a bipartisan Christmas gift to those suffering from the more than 65 diseases that cord-blood already works to cure.

Between running out for Christmas gifts today, feel free to nudge your senator to get this cord-blood bill passed. Someone you’ll never meet will appreciate it.

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