White House stands firm in stem cell debate

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor
Wednesday, January 10, 2007; 3:53 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supporters and opponents of human embryonic stem cell research promoted their positions on Wednesday ahead of a congressional vote on the issue, but the White House made clear it disapproves of any changes in legislation.

Proponents of expanded federal funding for work on human embryonic stem cells have reintroduced a bill to do so in the House of Representatives and plan a vote on Thursday. Last July, President George W. Bush exercised his first and only veto to stop the measure after it passed the House and Senate.

Senators say they have at least 67 votes, enough to override a veto this time, but House supporters were not sure of the vote there.

The White House issued a report suggesting that another veto was inevitable.

"The stem cell debate is only the first in what will be an onrushing train of biotechnology challenges in our future. We must establish a constructive precedent here for taking the moral dimensions of these issues seriously," read the report, entitled Advancing Stem Cell Science without Destroying Human Life.

Stem cells are the body's master cells, and scientists are working with stem cells from a variety of sources to try to transform medicine, cure diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's, and perhaps someday regenerate organs and tissue.

Stem cells taken from days-old human embryos appear to be especially powerful, and many scientists consider them among the most promising sources of stem cell research.

But opponents say it is unethical to experiment on human embryos.

"Without an understanding that life begins at conception, and that an embryo is a nascent human being, there will always be arguments that other uses, takeovers, and make-overs of embryos are justified by potential scientific and medical benefits," the White House report reads.


But newly elected Rep. Phil Hare, an Illinois Democrat, said supporters of the bill hold the higher moral ground. Hare said he replaced Democrat Lane Evans, who held the seat for 23 years.

"Unfortunately, his career of distinction was cut short when his Parkinson's forced him to retire from the House," Hare told a news conference.

"I am here today because I owe it to Lane and the millions of other Americans suffering from Parkinson's, prostate cancer, leukemia, diabetes, Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries to deliver the hope that lies in embryonic stem cell research."

But opponents held their own news conference to highlight recent research that suggests alternative sources for stem cells.

Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University in North Carolina published a study on Sunday showing he found highly malleable stem cells in the amniotic fluid that cushions a fetus.

"These cells are showing more promise than embryonic stem cells, and without requiring the destruction of human life in its earliest stage," Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Joe Pitts told a news conference.

Atala repudiated that position, saying it is important for scientists to pursue all avenues of stem cell research. Atala wrote in a letter to the bill's authors that it is essential that researchers funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health "are able to fully pursue embryonic stem cell research as a complement to research into other forms of stem cells."

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