The US Senate voted Wednesday to ease restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, ignoring President George W. Bush's threat of a second veto on legislation designed to lead to new medical treatments.
The 63-34 vote was shy of the margin that would be needed to
overturn the president's veto, despite gains made by supporters in
last autumn's elections.
Voting to heal the sick
"Not every day do we have the opportunity to vote to heal the
sick," said Democrat Claire McCaskill, a senator for less than 100 days
following a tough 2006 campaign in which the stem cell controversy
played a particularly prominent role. "It is a noble cause," she
"We're going to use federal money, indirectly or directly, to
destroy embryos," countered Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, echoing
Bush's argument against the legislation. Coburn said claims of
imminent scientific breakthroughs from embryonic stem cell research
are unsubstantiated, and adult stem cells already have been shown
to be useful in a variety of cases.
The House of Representatives, which passed similar legislation
this year, is expected to adopt the Senate's version in the next
several weeks for Bush's veto.
The Senate bill, Bush said, "is very similar to legislation I
vetoed last year. This bill crosses a moral line that I and many
others find troubling. If it advances all the way through Congress
to my desk, I will veto it," the president said in a statement
after the vote.
Urged to reconsider
Despite the criticism, the bill's chief sponsor urged the
president to give the bill another look. "I urge him to reconsider
this bill and sign it," said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. "Unleash
Capping two days of debate, the Senate also voted 70-28 to pass
a separate measure backed by Republicans. It supported research in
adult stem cells.
Bush said this legislation builds on "ethically appropriate
research," and he urged Congress to pass the measure "so stem cell
science can progress, without ethical and cultural conflict."
The Senate's action marked the latest act in a drama that blends
science and politics on an issue that affects millions of disease
sufferers and their families.
"It's extremely frustrating to go through this Kabuki dance a
second time with the president," said Peter Kiernan, head of the
Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which funds research.
"The one thing we know is we will outlast him."
Stem cells are created in the first days after conception. They
are typically culled from frozen embryos, which are destroyed in
the process. According to the National Institutes of Health Web
site, scientists have been able to conduct experiments with
embryonic stem cells only since 1998.
Huge healing potential
The embryonic stem cells can transform into a "dazzling array of
specialised cells," the Web site says. That is the property that
scientists and others say offers the potential for the development
of treatment for diseases as varied as juvenile diabetes,
Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
There was no federal funding for the work until Bush announced
on 9 August 2001 that his administration would make it available for
lines of stem cells that were already in existence. Elected with
the strong support of abortion foes and other conservatives, he
said then that his decision was designed to balance concerns about
"protecting life and improving life."
He also limited the funds to cell lines derived from embryos
that were surplus at fertility clinics, and that had been donated
from adults who had given informed consent.
Advocates of the veto-threatened legislation argue that the
number of stem cell lines available for research is smaller than
needed, and some of the material has become contaminated over time
by mouse embryonic skin cells that typically are placed at the
bottom of culture dishes used in the research.
The bill would permit funding for research on embryonic stem
cells regardless of the date of their creation, as long as they
were donated from in-vitro fertilisation clinics, they would
"otherwise be discarded", and donors gave their approval.
Previous bill vetoed
Bush cast the only veto of his presidency on a stem cell bill
last year, but public support for the research is strong. Democrats
sought to use that to their advantage in the 2006 congressional
Missouri became a testing ground, where McCaskill challenged
Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who opposed expanded federally funded
research. Michael J. Fox appeared in a television ad advocating
greater research, and the visual image was arresting - the
45-year-old actor swaying from his Parkinson's disease.
With federal funding limited, several states and private
institutions have moved into the void.
California, New York and New Jersey have programmes. Gov. Deval
Patrick of Massachusetts recently announced he hoped to overturn
restrictions left in place by his Republican predecessor.
"We in Massachusetts increasingly see this as a competitive
issue," said Dr George Daley of Children's Hospital and the
Harvard Stem Cell Institute. He said private institutions compete
to hire promising scientists drawn to the field.
"I would say it's revolutionised biomedical research," he said.
Rebutting claims by critics, he said, "You can't expect a cell
which burst on the scene only as recently as 1998 to have found its
way into patients yet. I don't know of any biological technology
that translates into patients that soon."
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Bush crushes stem cell hopes