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House Votes to Ease Limits on Stem Cell Research

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

The House easily passed legislation yesterday that would loosen President Bush's six-year-old restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, but the vote once again fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised veto.

Bush immediately renewed his pledge to veto the bill, which passed 247 to 176, and matches language approved by the Senate in April.

It is the third time the House has approved similar legislation. The vote seemed unaffected by Wednesday's news that scientists in Japan and the United States -- working with mice -- had found a way to make cells equivalent to embryonic stem cells without having to create or destroy embryos.

Opponents of human embryo research had used those findings to bolster their case that stem cell research -- which shows potential against a wide array of diseases -- does not have to depend on the destruction of embryos.

Proponents of the bill, which would allow federally funded scientists to study cells from donated, frozen embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics, may get one more opportunity to challenge Bush's policy.

That is because passage this time was arranged so that the Senate, rather than the House, will have the first vote on an override. Proponents in that chamber -- which in April passed the bill, 63 to 34, on a day when two of its supporters were absent -- appear to be within reach of the necessary two-thirds majority.

Although it appears the bill will go no farther than that, a Senate override would be a milestone for legislators and others frustrated with Bush's refusal to approve the measure. Polls suggest it is supported by the majority of Americans.

"The Senate gets it. The public gets it. The House gets it. Why doesn't the president of the United States get it?" asked Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the House bill's primary sponsor. She noted that a Gallup poll indicates that 64 percent of Americans support embryonic stem cell research.

"For many, stem cell research is the most promising source of potential treatments and cures," DeGette said. "Unfortunately, because of the stubbornness of one man, President Bush, these people continue to suffer and wait."

Opponents also directed their comments to the president.

"I thank God we have a president in the White House who will, with every confidence, veto this legislation like he did before," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said.

Pence and others who believe that human embryos have moral standing as members of society object to the fact that embryos must be destroyed to obtain their stem cells.

Bush, who is attending the G-8 summit of industrial nations in Germany, cited the new research in a statement issued by the White House.

"I am disappointed the leadership of Congress recycled an old bill that would simply overturn our country's carefully balanced policy on embryonic stem cell research," the statement said. It added that under the bill, "American taxpayers would for the first time in our history be compelled to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Crossing that line would be a grave mistake. For that reason, I will veto the bill passed today."

Proponents of the bill, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, countered that it is unclear whether the new experiments will work on human cells and patients. Progress happens fastest, several said, when multiple avenues of research are pursued simultaneously.

The bill would allow federally funded scientists to experiment on cells obtained from human embryos that are no longer needed by fertility clinic patients and are freely donated by those patients. It also spells out what would be the first federal ethics rules explicitly governing stem cell research.

Under current policy, imposed by Bush on Aug. 9, 2001, federally funded scientists can work only on embryonic stem cells obtained from the approximately 20 colonies of cells in existence as of that date. Hundreds of new colonies have since been created and are under study by scientists in other countries and by privately funded researchers in this country.

The House passed language similar to yesterday's in January, but those provisions did not precisely match the measure subsequently approved by the Senate. Yesterday's House vote was on the language adopted by the Senate in April -- a procedural move that gives the Senate the first shot at an override.

The House approved a virtually identical measure for the first time in 2005, and the Senate followed suit in 2006. Bush vetoed that legislation the next day at a White House ceremony that featured children produced from "rescued" frozen embryos.

Before the vote, representatives spoke passionately during an hour of debate, invoking the medical plights of family members and in some cases themselves.

Rep. Jim Langevin, (D-R.I.), who was paralyzed by a gunshot injury to his spinal cord years ago, reiterated his hope that stem cells may someday free him of his wheelchair.

"I'm opposed to abortion . . . but I'm committed to protection of life at all stages," Langevin said. "I believe that this legislation is vitally important."

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a physician, sees things differently.

"I don't believe, given that millions of Americans believe in the sanctity of life, that we should be funding research that destroys human life," he said. Citing the new research advances in mice, he predicted that embryonic stem cells would before long be seen as an antiquated means of developing cures.

"Science," Weldon said, "is going to move beyond this discussion."

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