The US House of Representatives has approved a bill that would overturn President Bush's current policy on human embryonic stem cell (ES) research. Members of the House voted 238-194 in favour of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which was sponsored by Michael Castle and Dianne DeGette, with support from about 200 co-sponsors. Fifty Republican members voted in favour of the new legislation, along with a large majority of Democrat representatives.
President Bush, who opposes any research that would involve the destruction of human embryos, announced on 9 August 2001 that no federal funds would be available for researchers working on human ES cells created after that date. US scientists have since complained that this policy restricts their research and leaves only less effective ES cell lines for them to work with, as ES cells created before that date were created using mouse 'feeder' cells.
The new legislation would allow an extension of federal funding for research using ES cells derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments and donated by patients. However, it would not allow funds for ES cell research on embryos that are created expressly for research purposes. It also provides that patients cannot be paid for embryo donation and that they must have full knowledge of how the donated embryos would be used.
The bill will now pass to the Senate, where it should also have enough support to pass. However, Senator Sam Brownback, a known opponent of ES cell research, has said that he will prevent the vote from happening by filibustering - although supporters of the bill think they have the 60 votes necessary to end any filibuster and force the vote through with no amendments. Even if the Senate vote goes ahead, Bush has the final say, and has vowed to veto it, which he can do as long as there is less than a two-thirds majority in both votes. 'This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life', he said, adding 'crossing this line would be a great mistake'. The House of Representatives, despite the Republican backing, did not achieve the necessary two-thirds majority. When Bush first proposed the veto last week, Dianne DeGette said that 'it's disappointing that the president would threaten to use his first veto on a bill that holds promise for cures to diseases that affect millions of Americans'.
Senate Democrat leader Harry Reid has called for a 'quick vote' in the Senate, saying that Bush is 'wrong politically, morally and scientifically' for opposing the change. Senator Arlen Specter, currently undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin's disease, said that a vote in favour would give him and others hope. 'Not to have the availability of the best of medical care is simply atrocious', he said. However, Republican Dave Weldon said that he didn't think there was any point in a vote, if the president was set on a veto. 'There's no chance it will become law', he said. Others say that the president would be advised not to veto the bill by senior White House advisors, as it seems there is public support for a loosening of the restrictions. A cross-party group of Senators has urged the president to reconsider his position and withdraw the threat to veto. Specter and others told Bush that they expect that despite not gaining the necessary number of votes to override a veto this time, further publicity would make this an inevitability. But Bush responded: 'I have made my position very clear on that issue', he said, adding 'I believe that the use of federal monies that end up destroying life... is not positive, is not good'.