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Defending life from the moment of conception

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News, 22 April 2003

22 April 2003

22 April 2003 The relatives of the British couple who died in an assisted suicide in Switzerland earlier this month have called for the group which helped them to die to be closed down. It has emerged that Robert and Jennifer Stokes did not tell their family or friends before they travelled to Zurich to take lethal doses of barbiturates, and it appears that neither of them were terminally ill. Joan Bates, Jennifer Stokes's sister, said that she believed her sister was depressed and that the family were "absolutely devastated and completely shocked at what happened". [Luton and Dunstable on Sunday, 19 April; see digests for 15 and 16 April] An international team of researchers has concluded that taking folic acid supplements before pregnancy could reduce the risk of Down's syndrome in unborn children. It is already known that folic acid can protect against neural-tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida, but researchers who studied groups of Israeli and Ukrainian families found that the two conditions were linked insofar as families who had conceived a child affected by one of the anomalies were more likely subsequently to conceive a child affected by the other anomaly. Professor Howard Cuckle of the Leeds Antenatal Screening Service in England claimed that the findings were "direct evidence of a link between Down's syndrome and NTD" and that folate supplementation could therefore reduce the frequency of both conditions. [BBC News online, 17 April ] In Britain, unborn babies found to have a neural-tube defect or Down's syndrome are usually aborted. Researchers in the US have found that baby teeth may be a rich source of stem cells. Dr Songtao Shi and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland found that stem cells in baby (milk) teeth, which fall out at about the age of six, were of a high quality compared to stem cells found elsewhere in the body, including in adult teeth and bone marrow, and the researchers have already succeeded in coaxing them to convert into nerve cells, fat cells and cells producing dentin in mice. [Reuters Health, 21 April] The use of ethically derived stem cells is an ethical and more promising alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells and to so-called therapeutic cloning. The makers of the Plan B morning-after pill applied yesterday to have the drug made available from pharmacists without the need for a doctor's prescription throughout the United States. The abortifacient morning-after pill is already sold over-the-counter in Alaska, California and Washington state, and now Women's Capital Corp. hopes that the US Food and Drug Administration will reclassify the drug nationwide by next year. [USA Today, 21 April ] The Slovak Constitutional Court has postponed indefinitely its final ruling on whether the country's liberal abortion law contravenes the right to life enshrined in the constitution. The court heard arguments in a constitutional challenge to Slovakia's liberal abortion laws earlier this month. The Slovak pro-life movement has achieved considerable success in recent years, with the overall abortion total falling by more than 60% in 13 years. However, Justice Minister Daniel Lipsic of the Christian Democratic party, which is supporting the challenge, told a press conference that their aim was not to outlaw abortion but to "find a balance between the right to choose and the right to life for a foetus during its first 12 weeks". [Slovak Spectator International Weekly, 21-27 April ] Prosecutors in California may bring double murder charges against a man suspected of killing his pregnant wife under a 1970 law which makes the killing of a 'viable foetus' by a third party a criminal offence. The 1970 state law [which was passed after California legalised abortion in 1967 but before the US Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to abortion in 1973] specifically excludes abortion or any action undertaken by the mother, but has aroused a debate over when life legally begins. More than 24 US states have similar laws protecting unborn children from violence except in the case of abortion, but the laws differ when it comes to the definition of when legal protection starts. California's law defines a foetus as human after eight weeks' gestation, whereas states such as Missouri and Minnesota consider an unborn child to be human from conception. [San Francisco Chronicle, 19 April ; WorldNetDaily, 21 April ]

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