Embryonic stem cell bill passes without veto-proof margin

WASHINGTON (BP)--The House of Representatives Jan. 11 again approved federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos but still fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

The 253-174 vote for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act Jan. 11 marked a gain of 15 votes from the last time the House passed the bill with a 238-194 roll call in May 2005. The latest vote was a gain of 18 for supporters from July 2006, when the House voted 235-193 in an unsuccessful effort to override President Bush’s only veto so far.

A veto override would require 290 votes to succeed if all House members vote. Before the latest House vote, the White House reiterated Bush’s intention to veto the bill again. The White House released Jan. 10 a 64-page paper making the case for promoting research that does not destroy embryos. The president also may issue an executive order on behalf of non-destructive stem cell research, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The House roll call means opponents of embryonic stem cell research again will prevail in protecting Bush’s policy that bars grants for experiments that destroy embryos. The Senate is expected to approve the House-passed bill easily, perhaps with a veto-proof majority. Only a totally unexpected abandonment by many foes of embryonic stem cell research funds would enable the House to achieve an override, however.

The House-approved measure would provide funds for research using stem cells extracted from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Bush’s rule allows funds for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when his policy was announced in August 2001.

The House debated the bill, H.R. 3, for three hours before it voted.

Rep. John Linder, R.-Ga., spoke against the proposal, saying, “If these researchers were taking this embryonic tissue from the just-laid eggs of loggerhead turtles or bald eagles, they would be fined and jailed. Surely we can do as much for humans.”

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D.-Md., said in supporting the bill, “It cannot be stressed enough that this legislation only authorizes federal research funds for stem cell lines generated from embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.... I believe we have a moral obligation to provide our scientific community with the tools it needs to save lives, and this legislation, in my view, accomplishes exactly that.”

Many embryonic stem cell research foes, however, support adoption of stored embryos by infertile couples to give them an opportunity to be born.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R.-N.C., refuted supporters of the bill who argued on the floor that opponents were “stopping the advance of science,” as she put it.

“That is one of the most cynical things that I have ever heard said on this floor,” she said. “ ... My husband is diabetic. I am very empathetic to the fact that research could do a lot to help us with diseases, but this is not the route to go.... Pro-lifers support stem cell research. We just don't support the destruction of life to get there.”

The increased margin for the legislation was expected after several embryonic stem cell research opponents lost in the November election and Democrats gained a House majority for the first time in 12 years. Voting for the latest bill were 216 Democrats and 37 Republicans. Sixteen Democrats joined 158 GOP members in voting against the measure.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other pro-life organizations oppose embryonic research because extracting stem cells requires the destruction of the days-old human being.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources –- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow –- has nearly universal support. Such research, which is funded by the federal government, does not harm the donor and has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.

"Let's be clear from the outset about what is working and what is not," Joseph Pitts, R.-Pa., who opposed the bill, said during debate. "Embryonic stem cell research ... has yet to produce a single cure or treatment in humans. Not one."

Tax dollars, he said, "should be directed toward methods that are proven to work" and research that is ethical.

Wendy Wright, Concerned Women for America’s president, said in a statement after the vote, “Allowing unethical research that kills small human beings is apparently not enough for some. They insist that all Americans must be complicit by paying for it, even though superior alternatives –- which are ethical and effective -– not only exist but are already treating patients.”

Privately funded research on embryonic stem cells is legal and ongoing in the United States.

Before the House passed the bill, Republicans sought to amend it with a motion to prevent federal money from going to stem cell scientists who conduct therapeutic, or research, cloning. The motion failed, however, 238-189.

The House vote came only four days after the announcement of promising stem cell experiments that do not harm embryos. A team of researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital in Boston found the stem cells in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women. The study showed the cells from the fluid that surrounds an unborn child have the ability to develop into a variety of tissues, a trait of embryonic stem cells, but do not have the tendency to form tumors, a propensity that has plagued research on cells from embryos.

Many scientists contend embryonic stem cells have more therapeutic potential than their non-embryonic counterparts, but embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

In addition, the strength of the pro-embryonic lobby’s claims is not evident in the priorities of the multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry, which has invested many times more in non-embryonic stem cell research.

"Private investors look for hope, too -- they hope to make money," Linder said. "... Do you wonder why private investment is not flowing into embryonic stem cell research?"


-- With reporting by Michael Foust

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