The new Democratic-led House of Representatives has voted to lift President George W. Bush's restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.
But the vote largely along party lines fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised presidential veto. Bush used the only veto of his presidency last July to reject an identical measure. The White House reiterated his veto intention, saying American taxpayers should not pay for research involving the intentional destruction of human embryos.
The debate raises passions since the research typically involves the destruction of frozen embryos created for in vitro fertilization, which ensures fierce opposition from anti-abortion lawmakers and like-minded constituents who believe their taxes should not fund such research. Proponents of the research said it is done on embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics anyway.
The debate comes just days after new research reported that stem cells extracted harmlessly from the amniotic fluid that cushions a fetus in-utero hold much the same promise for disease-fighting as embryonic stem cells.
"I support stem cell research with only one exception: research that requires killing human life," said Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Taxpayer-funded stem cell research must be carried out in an ethical manner in a way that respects the sanctity of human life. Fortunately, ethical stem cell alternatives continue to flourish in the scientific community."
Democrats countered with Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., an anti-abortion lawmaker who is paralyzed from the chest down from a handgun accident that occurred when he was a teenager. The research, Langevin said, offers "tremendous hope that not only stem cell research might lead one day to a cure for spinal cord injuries but one day a child with diabetes will no longer have to endure a lifetime of painful shots and tests."
Dr. Robert Lanza, a top stem cell researcher at Advanced Cell Technology , said that stem cell-based treatments could be just a few years away for eye and spinal cord injuries, but that a decade or more of research is needed before treatments might become available for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Polls show most Americans support embryonic stem cell research, and Democrats say the issue played a big role in the Nov. 7 elections that returned their party to the majority in the House and Senate.
But in the House, Democratic gains of 30 seats don't translate into anywhere near that number of new votes for the embryonic stem cell research bill, sponsored by Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Mike Castle, R-Del.
For starters, many Democratic freshmen defeated more moderate Republicans who voted for the bill when it originally passed in 2005 and on an unsuccessful veto override attempt last year. And some Republicans who supported the bill have been replaced with opponents of the measure.
As a result, said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, House embryonic stem cell research proponents have gained only about a dozen votes.
If every House member votes, it takes 290 votes to override a veto. Support reached a high-water mark of 238 in the prior GOP-controlled House.
"It will be difficult to get to 290 votes, but we're gaining on it," DeGette said.
Both the House and Senate have to override a veto for a bill to become law without a president's signature.
Scientists still say, however, that embryonic stem cells so far are backed by the most promising evidence that one day they might be used to grow replacements for damaged tissue, such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.
The legislation would lift Bush's 2001 ban on federal dollars spent on deriving new stem cells from fertilized embryos. Bush's veto of the bill last year was the first veto of his presidency.
Embryonic stem cells are able to morph into any of the more than 220 cell types that make up the human body. They usually are culled from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away. But because the culling kills the embryos, Bush on Aug. 9, 2001, restricted government funding to research using only the embryonic stem cell lines then in existence, groups of stem cells kept alive and propagating in lab dishes.
But those 21 stem cell lines have many problems, and researchers say 300 newer lines, culled from fertility clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away, are considered better suited for implantation into sick Americans.
Scientists take those cells from a 5-day-old embryo, when it is a ball of about 100 cells no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.