| George Bush with a baby, who was an adopted embryo, at the White House. (AFP)
Washington, May 25: Defying a veto threat from President Bush, the House of Representatives voted yesterday to loosen restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research, siding with patients who have debilitating diseases over conservatives who call the research immoral.
The 238-194 vote brought together most Democrats and a group of 50 Republicans, whose support put them at odds with the conservative House leadership.
While proponents fell well short of the two-thirds majority they would need to override a veto, sponsors of the bill said they hoped the vote would draw Bush into talks on a compromise that would expand federal support for the research.
The House vote put Bush in a predicament.
Social conservatives who are a core part of the Republican base object to the research because it destroys human embryos. Bush has said he would use the first-ever veto of his presidency to ensure limits on the research are not eased.
But a veto might have repercussions at the polls. Many patient groups and scientists say that the research has the potential to cure diseases, and a recent Gallup poll found that 60 per cent of Americans find it morally acceptable.
The legislation also has strong support in the Republican-dominated Senate.
Yesterday, Bush stood his ground. After meeting families who have had children from embryos donated by other couples, the President said the vote raised “grave moral issues.”
“This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life,” Bush said. “Crossing this line would be a great mistake.”
On the House floor, majority leader Tom DeLay likened embryonic stem cell research to “killing some in the hopes of saving others.” But his impassioned appeal was of little avail.
It was the second time in two days that Republican moderates bucked the conservative congressional leadership.
On Monday, a group of Republican Senate moderates had helped stop a drive by Senate majority leader Bill Frist to strip Democrats of the ability to block Bush’s judicial nominees by filibuster.
Among those asking lawmakers to support the stem cell bill was Representative James R. Langevin, whose spine was severed in a gun accident as a teen. Langevin said he believed embryonic stem cell research was “very consistent” with his opposition to abortion.
“What could be more pro-life than extending and improving the quality of life of people suffering from disease'” Langevin, who uses a wheelchair, asked during a news conference held by supporters of the bill.
Stem cells from embryos are thought to be able to develop into any type of cell in the body, such as heart muscle and neurons in the brain.
Scientists theorise that if they can discover how that development occurs, they may be able to create a “cellular repair kit” for the human body, as well as learn how to make cells and tissues that could be transplanted into patients.
The cells are typically collected from embryos created at fertility clinics. Doctors often create more test-tube embryos than women actually use in the course of trying to become pregnant. The unused embryos are usually frozen, and many are eventually discarded as medical waste.
Under pressure to fund research using stem cells drawn from those embryos, Bush announced in August 2001 that he would allow the federal government to back the research, but only on stem cells that had already been created. The President said he did not want to induce researchers to destroy additional embryos.
Privately funded research was not affected by the president’s order.
Since Bush's announcement, many of the groups of stem cells that were thought to be available for research
have turned out to be unusable, and others are now
thought to be unsuitable for experiments involving
transplantation into patients. Scientists have created
new groups of embryonic stem cells since August 2001,
but they are not eligible for taxpayer-funded
experiments under Bush's policy.
Under the House legislation, sponsored by Reps.
Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette
(D-Colo.), the federal government could fund research
involving embryonic stem cells no matter when they
were created. The stem cells would still have to come
from embryos donated by fertility clinic patients who
no longer planned to use them to become pregnant.
After the vote, Castle said one possible compromise
with Bush might be to move forward the August 2001
cutoff date that Bush set. The pool of stem cells
eligible for federally funded experiments would then
be larger, but not unlimited.
"We have moved this issue forward tremendously,"
Castle said. "My sense is the White House cannot
ignore this vote. The Senate certainly will not ignore
Castle is a member of a group of centrist Republicans
called the Main Street Partnership, and the group
Tuesday boasted of its role in passing the
legislation. Democrats also cheered the House vote on
the stem cell measure. "The bill is maddeningly
reasonable," DeGette told reporters. "It takes embryos
that will be thrown out and uses them to the greater
good. It's taking something that will be thrown away
and using it for ethical research."
But the Bush administration said the bill would cross
a line drawn by the president.
The legislation, said a White House policy document
distributed to lawmakers, "would compel all American
taxpayers to pay for research that relies on the
intentional destruction of human embryos for the
derivation of stem cells, overturning the president's
policy that supports research without promoting such
An embryo, DeLay said during the debate, "is a baby in
"The best we can say about embryonic stem cell
research is that it's a scientific exploration into
potential benefits [from] killing human beings," DeLay
said. Such research can only be carried out by
"deliberate destruction of a unique, living,
integrated human person," he added.
Abortion rights opponents said they are not against
all stem cell research ' only that which involves
They say that stem cells can be ethically harvested
from adults, and that umbilical cord blood holds great
promise as a source.
In a separate vote Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly
approved legislation to provide $79 million in federal
funds to collect stem cells from umbilical cord blood
and facilitate medical research on therapeutic uses.
The legislation, approved 431-1, would also set up a
national registry to help patients looking for
Some conservative leaders in the House had hoped the
cord blood bill would draw votes away from the
legislation promoting embryonic stem cell research.
However, supporters of the Castle-DeGette legislation
said that stem cells from embryos had greater
possibilities of being developed into the different
types of cells that might be used to treat patients.
Cord blood cells have been mainly used to treat blood
Castle and DeGette urged their supporters to vote for
the cord blood bill as a complementary measure.
Since Bush's 2001 order, embryonic stem cell research
has gained support from prominent individuals. Castle
said that former First Lady Nancy Reagan, for example,
lobbied for his bill by calling House Republicans.
Reagan has supported embryonic stem cell research in
the hope that it could provide a cure for Alzheimer's,
the disease that took President Reagan's life.
The debate in the House gained urgency after South
Korean scientists last week announced a potential
breakthrough in stem cell research.
They said they had produced embryonic clones of sick
and injured patients and used them to create lines of
stem cells that were genetic matches for those
Such techniques offer the potential of developing
tissues that would not be rejected by a patient's body
after transplantation. However, the scientists said
they opposed using cloning to produce babies.
Some House lawmakers said they feared moral
compunction would cause the United States to lose its
place as a leader in medical innovation.
"For America to stand back because of a moral
principle and not allow this scientific research to
proceed is unconscionable," said Rep. Charles F. Bass
Although the House debate involved federally funded
research, health policy expert Gail R. Wilensky said
that privately funded studies were proceeding with no
"There is a downside to having this very small federal
involvement," said Wilensky, who has served as an
advisor to the current and the first President Bush.
"You can make the argument that having the government
involved provides additional protections. The presence
of the federal government forces ethical
considerations to be introduced."
The 50 Republicans voting to ease Bush's limits on
embryonic stem cell research were joined by 187
Democrats and one independent. Voting against the bill
were 180 Republicans and 14 Democrats.
All of California's Democratic House members voted in
favor of the bill, except Juanita Millender-McDonald
of Carson, who did not vote.
California Republicans who voted for the bill were
Mary Bono of Palm Springs, Ken Calvert of Riverside,
Randy "Duke" Cunningham of San Diego, David Dreier of
San Dimas, Darrell E. Issa of Vista, Jerry Lewis of
Redlands, Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita,
Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach and Bill Thomas
California Republicans opposing the bill were
Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, John T. Doolittle of
Rocklin, Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley, Wally Herger
of Marysville, Duncan Hunter of El Cajon, Dan Lungren
of Chico, Gary G. Miller of Diamond Bar, Devin Nunes
of Tulare, Richard W. Pombo of Tracy, George P.
Radanovich of Mariposa and Edward R. Royce of
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