President Vows Veto On Stem Cell Research

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

President Bush vowed yesterday to veto legislation intended to ease the restrictions he imposed on stem cell research in 2001, setting up a potentially divisive battle with Congress over the morality of modern science.

A bipartisan team in the House has collected 201 sponsors and believes it has enough other supporters to reach the 218 votes necessary to pass the measure as early as next week and send it to the Senate. But Bush, who has yet to veto a bill in more than four years in office, dashed their hopes that he would allow it to become law without a fight.

"I made my position very clear on embryonic stem cells," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with the visiting prime minister of Denmark. "I'm a strong supporter of adult stem cell research, of course. But I made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life is -- I'm against that. And therefore, if the bill does that, I will veto it."

The president also expressed alarm at reports that scientists in South Korea have created nearly a dozen cloned human embryos genetically identical to medical patients in hopes of replacing defective tissue. "I'm very concerned about cloning," Bush said. "I worry about a world in which cloning becomes acceptable."

Bush first informed several members of Congress during a private White House meeting on Wednesday that he would reject the stem cell legislation, according to an official knowledgeable about the session. By making his position publicly known yesterday, the president could influence Republicans who are unenthusiastic about angering antiabortion groups over a vote that might not change federal policy.

If so, that could avert the need for Bush to issue his first veto on such a volatile issue, given that the sponsors of the measure doubt they have enough votes to override him.

Several leading Democrats criticized Bush's statement. "President Bush has made the wrong choice, putting politics ahead of safe, responsible science," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said in a statement. Added Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.): "The president's threat to veto legislation on bipartisan stem cell research demonstrates how out of touch he is with the priorities of the American people."

Opponents of stem cell research rushed out their own statements praising Bush for taking a resolute stand on a matter of principle regardless of the politics of the issue. "We are happy to see the president defending a culture of life at all stages and refusing to allow further taxpayer money to fund the unethical science of embryonic stem cells," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

The stem cell issue has shadowed Bush for much of his presidency. Scientists believe such cells offer hope of discovering treatments for a range of diseases and injuries, while many religious figures condemn the destruction of human life in the form of days-old embryos for research.

After taking several weeks in 2001 to educate himself on the issue and to wrestle with the moral implications, Bush went on national television to announce that he was limiting federally funded research to existing embryonic stem cell lines. The White House maintains that there is already enough material to work with, while scientists complain that many promising cell lines remain off limits.

The House legislation, sponsored by Reps. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), would still prohibit federal funding for the creation of embryos solely for research purposes. But it would allow research using embryos stored at fertility clinics and donated by couples who no longer need them.

While rejecting that, the White House signaled support for alternative legislation by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) to create a national umbilical-cord blood bank. Blood cells from umbilical cords offer some prospects for research, but not as much as embryonic stem cells, according to scientists.

"We need to look at the specifics of the kind of bill that's being discussed on cord blood," said Trent Duffy, White House deputy press secretary, "but we think that that has some real promise."

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