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Hadassah Pushing Stem-cell Legislation

In a move that is likely to bring it into conflict with Catholic and Evangelical Christian groups, the largest Jewish organization in America is launching a push for pro-stem-cell-research legislation in state houses around the country.

Hadassah, the 300,000-member women’s Zionist organization, is bringing hundreds of advocates to the capitals of 47 states this spring to agitate for legislation authorizing state funding for stem-cell research, which scientists hope will lead to cures for many chronic diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Hadassah has identified 10 states — including Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Florida and Maryland — as the central focus of its effort. The organization will launch their new campaign with a March 1 trip to Albany, during which Hadassah members will make their case to New York lawmakers.

Under pressure from religious conservatives who oppose the scientific manipulation of human genetic material, President Bush in 2001 restricted federal funding for stem-cell research to 15 existing embryonic stem-cell lines. Since then, several states, including California and New Jersey, have passed legislation seeking to augment federal research efforts. Other states, however, especially those in which conservative religious lobbies are strong, have considered or passed initiatives banning aspects of such research or state funding for it.

Hadassah officials say that their goals have become more ambitious following the approval this past November of the Proposition 71 ballot initiative in California authorizing $3 billion over 10 years for local stem-cell research.

“California really raised the bar,” said Hadassah’s national affairs director, Shelly Klein. “There’s been an explosion of interest in this science. New York and Massachusetts, which are known for being major research hubs, are afraid they’ll lose their top scientists to California.”

The Catholic Church and many conservative Christian denominations consider fertilized embryos, which are created and discarded in the course of routine in-vitro procedures, to be full-fledged human beings. Consequently, any research on stem cells derived from such embryos constitutes an immoral destruction of life, in their view. In stark contrast, liberal Protestant denominations and the various Jewish streams, including, notably, the Orthodox, have supported a fairly liberal approach to embryonic stem-cell research on the principle that the scientific use of the isolated fertilized egg does not represent the destruction of human beings and can lead to the saving of lives.

The issue was a heated one during the past presidential election, when John Kerry campaigned for more stem-cell research and first lady Laura Bush gave a speech explaining the administration’s opposition. The issue also is figuring in the early positioning of 2008 presidential candidates.

For example, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, came out against the research during a speech in South Carolina Monday. “Science must respect the sanctity of human life,” Romney said, according to press accounts. “The creation of life for destruction is simply wrong.”

Hadassah strongly opposes the federal policy limiting stem-cell research and rejects the attempts of religious conservatives to portray the research as unethical or immoral.

“We have to get the message across that we are not killing babies or having women get pregnant to make stem cells,” said Bobby Levin, the president of Hadassah’s Chicago chapter, who is leading 60 advocates to Illinois’s capital, Springfield, next month for a rally and a day of advocacy.

Levin said she thinks President Bush’s stance restricting funding for research to the 15 existing lines is “ridiculous” because many of the existing lines have proved “useless” in the course of research.

Hadassah’s advocacy of stem-cell research is not incidental: The group supports the Hadassah Medical Center, located in Jerusalem, at which advanced stem-cell research is conducted.

“This goes to the core of Hadassah’s mission because Hadassah is a world leader in stem-cell research at our hospital in Israel,” Klein said. “We have a hundred-year history of advocating for health. Our position is not a partisan issue. It’s about saving lives. As a Jewish women’s organization, we want to make the point that religions aren’t monolithic about this. There are plenty of religious voices on the side of stem-cell research.”

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