Policy & Practice


Stem Cell Support Drops Slightly

Most of the public supports the use of human embryonic stem cells for medical research, but that support may be faltering slightly, according to a new poll from Virginia Commonwealth University. The survey, which included 1,000 adults, found that 54% of respondents favored stem cell research in 2006, down from 58% in a similar VCU poll in 2005. The number of respondents who opposed stem cell research climbed from 32% in 2005 to 37% in the recent 2006 survey. However, when asked if they would support the use of embryonic stem cells to find a treatment for themselves or a family member with Parkinson's disease or spinal cord injury, 70% of respondents said yes. Only 21% would not support the use of stem cells in that situation, according to the 2006 poll. How people feel about stem cell research may also depend on their political affiliation. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that many more Democrats and Independents favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research than do Republicans. In a national poll of 1,867 adults, the researchers found that 67% of Democrats and 61% of Independents favor broadening federal funding for stem cell research, compared with 37% of Republicans.

Gyn. Cancer Legislation Passed

Members of Congress passed legislation at the end of last year to raise awareness of gynecologic cancers. The Gynecologic Cancer Education and Awareness Act tasks the Health and Human Services secretary with carrying out a national public awareness campaign to increase understanding of these cancers by women and health care providers. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in 2005, was expected to be signed by President Bush at press time. The bill authorizes the federal government to spend $16.5 million over the next 3 years on awareness and educational efforts. “In creating a federal campaign to educate women and health care providers alike, as this legislation does, we can take a bold step toward ensuring women know which symptoms to look for and how to seek help before it is too late,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a cosponsor of the legislation and an ovarian cancer survivor, said in a statement.

Unborn Child Pain Relief Bill Fails

Congress failed to pass legislation that would have required physicians performing abortions at 20 weeks' gestation or later to offer women the option of receiving anesthesia or other pain-reducing drugs for the fetus. The Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act (H.R. 6099) failed to pass the House of Representatives in December. The legislation included findings that “there is substantial evidence that the abortion methods most commonly used 20 weeks or more after fertilization cause substantial pain to an unborn child.” Under the legislation, physicians would have been able to offer their own views on the ability of the fetus to feel pain and whether pain-reducing drugs would be advised, as long as they also provided the required information. The legislation was supported by the Christian Medical Association, which asserts that women should be informed of the likelihood that the fetus experiences pain during an abortion. The National Abortion Federation applauded the defeat of the bill.

Emergency Contraception in Rape

Some Massachusetts hospitals are imposing hurdles that make it more difficult for rape victims to access emergency contraception, according to the results of a survey conducted by NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. The organization called 69 hospital emergency departments in early 2006 to gauge the availability of emergency contraception to rape victims and to assess compliance with a 2005 state law requiring that emergency contraception be offered to all rape survivors. The calls were made by a rape counselor who called on behalf of a potential client to find out if she could obtain emergency contraception at the hospital. The survey found that 7% of the hospitals leave it up to the physician to decide if emergency contraception should be provided and another 7% said that emergency contraception may be contingent on undergoing a rape kit exam. However, the results show a significant increase in the number of hospitals offering emergency contraception in 2006 compared with 2004 when only 58% of hospitals offered emergency contraception to rape victims.

Easing Use of Experimental Drugs

The Food and Drug Administration is proposing to widen access to experimental drugs. The agency has been accused by patient advocates and some drug makers of obfuscating the criteria physicians need to seek to use investigational drugs in their patients. In 2003, an Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group, the Abigail Alliance, sued the FDA to get unfettered access to unapproved therapies. The plaintiffs were backed by a federal appeals court in May 2006, and a rehearing of the case is expected to begin in March. In the meantime, the FDA's proposed rule, published on Dec. 14, said the agency was going to make it easier for physicians to access experimental therapies, and for manufacturers to make them available. “FDA hopes this proposal will increase awareness in the health care community of the range of options available for obtaining experimental drugs for seriously ill patients,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, FDA deputy commissioner for operations, said in a statement. A separate proposed rule would make it easier for manufacturers to recover costs. In a statement, the Abigail Alliance said the FDA proposals “merely clarify their existing policies.”

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