The Senate has passed two pieces of legislation designed to relax the restrictions on stem cell research in the US. It has approved a much-anticipated bill to ease current restrictions on human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research, allowing for federal funding to be used for research on 'spare' embryos donated by couples after undergoing IVF. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act 2007 was passed by 63 votes to 24, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, making it unlikely to become law. President Bush voted an almost identical bill last year and has vowed to do the same again.
In a statement following the vote, President Bush said that the approved legislation 'crosses a moral line that I and many others find troubling. If it advances all the way through Congress to my desk, I will veto it'. Senator Tom Harkin, one of the sponsors of the bill, urged the President to reconsider his position. 'There are some 400,000 leftover, unwanted embryos in fertility clinics across America. All we are saying is, instead of throwing those leftover embryos away, let's allow couples to donate a few of them, if they wish, to create stem cell lines that could cure diseases and save lives', he said.
Under current law passed on 9 August 2001, federally-funded stem cell scientists are only permitted to conduct research on the 21 human ES cell lines created prior to that date. It is believed that there may be 50 or 60 new lines currently out of reach for federal researchers due to these restrictions.
The Senate was also asked to consider the so-called HOPE Act, which allows for federal research on 'naturally dead' embryos. The term is ambiguous but it is thought to include frozen embryos that would not survive the thawing process, and ones that are not able to develop further. Cell-lines derived from amniotic fluid may also come under this scope of this bill. The legislation was passed by 80 votes to 70, with largely Republican support.
Of the HOPE Act, President Bush said: 'I strongly support this bill, and I encourage the Congress to pass it and send it to me for my signature, so stem cell science can progress, without ethical and cultural conflict'. However, critics have doubted the science behind the bill and say there is no consensus on the term 'naturally dead'. 'We find this to be an absolutely bizarre bill because the presumption upon which it is based is flawed,' said leading stem cell researcher John Gearhart, of the John Hopkins University.
The two bills will be sent back to the House when they return after the Spring recess before they make their way to Bush's desk.