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AJC Opinion: Embryo Rights Go too Far in Senate Bill

by Maureen Downey for the editorial board,  Atlanta Journal Constitution,  Mar 10, 2009

Over the next year, countless Georgia families will sit in a doctor’s office and be told that a loved one has early Alzheimer’s. Thousands of childless couples will turn to infertility clinics to fulfill their dream of parenthood. Hundreds of accident victims will suffer spinal injuries.

But none of those Georgians mattered Monday, when the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 7 to 6 to bestow personhood on embryos.

Senate Bill 169 — the Ethical Treatment of Human Embryos Act — declares: “A living in vitro human embryo is a biological human being who is not the property of any person or entity.” Should that bill become law, it will halt the embryonic stem cell research in Georgia that offers the promise of curing Alzheimer’s and repairing spinal cord injuries.

More immediately, it will so complicate legal questions around frozen embryos that it could drive in vitro fertilization clinics out of the state, forcing desperate Georgia couples to go out of state as well.

The law’s real intent is to outlaw abortion, a goal its proponents acknowledge. At the hearing, testimony in favor of SB 169 came from Georgia Right to Life, the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Georgia Catholic Conference. While stem cell research may potentially save many lives, those opponents argued it deals a death blow to the embryo itself, which they see as an unconscionable trade-off.

They are entitled to that belief, which is deeply grounded in their faiths. However, the conviction that pinpoint-sized cells have the same rights as children battling leukemia or teenagers paralyzed from a diving accident is a minority opinion according to most national polls.

And at the same time the state Senate committee was casting its vote against stem cell research and in vitro fertilization, President Barack Obama was lifting a partial ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, saying, “Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident.”

A paraplegic as the result of a motorcycle accident, Capitol lobbyist Rusty Kidd spoke against the bill, asking senators to permit the stem cell research that might enable him to walk again.

But he wondered about the bill’s real agenda, noting, “… if you go through all the minutiae, what you’re basically doing is defining when life starts and when it doesn’t start. All the other words mean nothing.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue has attempted to make Georgia a leader in life sciences and biomedicine. In fact, Georgia expects 20,000 biotech industry members in May at the 2009 BIO International Convention. Passage of SB 169 would undo those efforts to court the biomedical industry, end major research projects at Georgia universities and cast the state as an anti-science backwater.

“This bill would be viewed as a negative statement on the part on Georgia in regard to the development of sciences and technologies that could cure diseases and suffering,” said physician Russell M. Medford, president and CEO of AtheroGenics and former chair of the Georgia Bio, a biotech partnership. “It undermines many years of efforts on the part of the state and our governor to advance the state’s reputation as an innovator in medical and life sciences.”

“Even George Bush on his worst day only put limits on the federal funding of stem cell research,” said state Sen. David Adelman (D-Decatur), who opposes SB 169. “This bill isn’t a question of funding. It goes much further. This bill criminalizes the most promising medical research.”

Atlanta reproductive endocrinologist Andrew Toledo warned the Senate committee that the bill’s elevation of the embryo to personhood could criminalize infertility specialists who may destroy an embryo in the process of helping a couple become pregnant.

“If embryos are full humans, then anything that puts an embryo at risk could be construed as a criminal violation,” Toledo said.

And what of the thousands of frozen embryos? If a couple no longer wants to pay annual fees to preserve their embryos, would the state of Georgia step forward to pay for their preservation in perpetuity?

“I think it’s a very good question,” said state Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome). “I don’t think we have an answer. There are implications of defining something as a person at the moment of conception and that’s one of them.”

But Smith’s admitted lack of answers didn’t stop him from voting for the bill in committee, and it probably won’t stop him from voting for it again should it reach the Senate floor this week as expected. Only strong public opposition is likely to halt its passage.


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