The US Senate has begun debating a bill on embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research that will, if passed, extend the provision of federal funding for such research. The bill - known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 (HR 810) - is being debated alongside two other bills dealing with issues in ES cell research. A vote is expected on Tuesday.
Bill HR 810 has already been passed by the House of Representatives, following debates last May, but has stalled in the Senate since that time. The bill - which would allow federal funds to be used for research on ES cells derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments and voluntarily donated by patients - was passed in the House by 238 votes to 194. A vote in favour of the bill would see the Senate going against policy put in place by President George Bush in 2001. Bush, who morally 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.
However, soon after bill HR 810 was passed by the House of Representatives, Bush pledged to veto any federal legislation that would relax the policy on ES cell research conducted by federally funded researchers. To override such a Presidential veto, the bill will need to have been passed with a two-thirds majority in both chambers - something it did not reach in the House. Last May, Senator Arlen Specter said that he was confident that the necessary two-thirds majority is achievable in the Senate. But President Bush last week 'emphatically' restated his intention to use the presidential veto - his first since taking office -should the Senate pass the bill. Senator Harry Reid, leader of the minority in the Senate, said that to do so would be 'a terrible disservice to the American people, the hopes of millions'. A number of other Senators and other interested parties have called on Bush not to use his power of veto. Opinion polls suggest that almost 70 per cent of Americans support ES cell research.
The other two bills to be debated - both of which are expected to pass - take different approaches. The first (S 2754), which is sponsored by Republican Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, would require the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research ways of creating ES cell lines without creating and destroying actual embryos, as well as increasing research into adult stem cells. The other (S 3504), sponsored by Senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, would ban the use of embryos from 'fetal farms' in research - those that could be created in a non-human uterus or from human pregnancies created specifically for the purposes of research.