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Hadassah Activists Lobby Congress on Controversial Stem-cell Measure

July 20, 2005
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Plans for Hadassah activists to meet in Washington this week had been made years in advance, but the timing could not have been more perfect. More than 1,500 women from Hadassah, the leading advocate in the Jewish community for embryonic stem-cell research, took to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, just days before the U.S. Senate was expected to debate a bill to fund that very research.

The advocates, well versed on the issue and well disciplined to stick to the group’s core policy concerns, pressed several senators, including those who have not yet determined how they will vote on the controversial bill.

The legislation, which would extend funding for research on human stem cells from embryos that otherwise would be discarded, passed the House of Representatives in May. President Bush has vowed to veto it.

“We were fortunate the stem-cell vote came up, but we can’t say we arranged it that way,” said June Walker, Hadassah’s national president. “It was just serendipity.”

Hadassah members spread out through the halls of Congress to lobby their individual representatives and senators on several issues.

For the contingent from Georgia, one of the most important meetings was with aides to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is believed to be undecided on the stem-cell legislation.

Stem cells are extracted from embryos and can be manipulated to create various human-blood and tissue cells. Stem cell lines are cell groups extracted from embryos and are capable of reproducing themselves.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act passed the House, 238-194, but the Act would need two-thirds support to override a presidential veto. While the bill was expected to pass the Senate this week, supporters hope it will garner the 67 votes needed to block the president’s veto there.

Bush allowed research using existing stem-cell lines from 2001, but no further lines are available for use under current administration policy. The bill would change that.

The legislation is supported throughout the Jewish community: Both the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and the Orthodox Union have lobbied for it.

In their meeting with the senator’s aides, the Hadassah women from Georgia noted that embryonic stem-cell research could help treat or cure illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. They compared the ethical concerns being raised about the procedure to opposition to the Polio vaccine when it was first unveiled.

“Many people here have relatives who have diseases that could be impacted by stem-cell research,” Rachel Schonberger, 63, a physician from Atlanta, told Isakson’s staffers. “It is not a political issue, it is a health issue.”

The group also talked at length about the work being done on stem-cell research at Hadassah’s two hospitals in Israel.

Isakson’s legislative correspondent, Bradford Swann, told the 20 delegates that the senator was concerned the Senate would be passing legislation that the president would veto, and Isakson would like to see compromise legislation that would have broader support.

The women also talked about support for another piece of legislation, which would prevent discrimination based on genetic makeup, as well as two foreign-policy priorities regarding foreign aid and pressure on Iran.

But the bulk of the conversation focused on the stem-cell issue.

Afterward, Schonberger said it was very important to speak to the offices of undecided senators.

“If you’re on the fence, that means you need more information,” she said. “As an education organization, we can help a senator make an educated, fact-based decision.”

Esther Panitch, 33, an Atlanta lawyer, said lobbying was important.

“You really feel like you are part of the democratic process,” she said. “You feel like you’re being heard as a citizen, which is your highest calling.”

The Hadassah members from Minnesota met Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) in the vast atrium of one of the Senate office buildings. The delegates looked discouraged when the senator said he was undecided about the bill but expressed concern that embryos could be created for sale and research.

Meredith Anderson, a state government employee from Falcon Heights, Minn., said she was pretty sure how Coleman was going to vote from the comments he made.

“It was unproductive,” Anderson said. “I disagree with him on so many issues.”

Another delegate refused to join the group picture with him.

Walker said that while the timing of the group’s advocacy trip to Washington was coincidental, she believed the lobbying — and other efforts throughout the year — has an impact.

“You can’t have 1,500 women walking through here with red signs and red buttons, all saying the same thing, without having a profound effect,” she said.

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