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House defies Bush on stem cells

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

ongoing destruction."

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

human embryos.

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

government oversight.

"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

of Bakersfield.

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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