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House passes embryonic stem cell bill; tally not enough to override promised Bush veto

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives voted May 24 to provide federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos but fell well short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a promised presidential veto.

The House approved nearly unanimously another stem cell research bill, one that was supported by pro-life members because it does not require embryo destruction.

Representatives voted 238-194 for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 810, which would repeal President Bush’s policy prohibiting federal funds for stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Michael Castle, R.-Del., amounts to the most serious, congressional assault on Bush’s policy since the president instituted it in August 2001. The president’s rule allows funding for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence prior to his announcement of the policy.

Bush said recently he would veto a bill that overturns his policy, and the White House reaffirmed May 24 the president would reject Castle’s bill, which would underwrite research that uses embryos left over at in vitro fertilization clinics.

It would require 290 votes when all members of the House participate to override a presidential veto, so Castle’s bill fell about 50 short of that mark. A similar measure has 32 cosponsors in the Senate. If the Senate passes the same legislation, only a veto would prevent it from becoming law. In more than four years in the White House, Bush has yet to veto a bill.

In action immediately after Castle’s legislation was approved, the House voted 431-1 for the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act, H.R. 2520. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., would authorize $79 million over five years for the collection, testing and storage of stem cells from umbilical cord blood. It also would establish a network for doctors and patients to access in an effort to find matches.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. In addition to being extracted from embryos, the cells may be found in such non-embryonic sources as bone marrow, fat and placentas, as well as umbilical cord blood.

In embryonic stem cell research, embryos in normally the first week of life are destroyed when stem cells are extracted from them. Privately funded research on embryonic stem cells is ongoing in the United States. Many scientists contend embryonic stem cells have more therapeutic potential than their non-embryonic counterparts. The strength of the pro-embryonic lobby’s claims is not evident in the priorities of the multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry, which has invested many times more in non-embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cell research has failed to produce any successful therapies in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. Meanwhile, research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources has produced treatments for at least 58 ailments, according to the National Right to Life Committee. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, NRLC and other pro-life organizations oppose embryonic stem cell research because of its destructive nature, but they favor research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources.

“I am disappointed that a majority of the House voted to support the Castle bill,” ERLC President Richard Land told Baptist Press. “My disappointment is somewhat mollified by the fact that it does not appear they have a veto-proof majority, and the president has promised to veto this legislation if it reaches his desk.

“Enactment of this bill would be taking a step down a very steep and slippery slope that devalues human life. When any human life is deemed less valuable than other human life, all human life is diminished.”

The Bush administration firmly reiterated its opposition to federal funding of embryonic research in two public ways in the hours leading to the vote on Castle’s bill.

In the morning, the White House issued a statement of policy in opposition to Castle’s bill and reaffirming the president will veto the bill if it reaches his desk. The policy statement said H.R. 810 is “seriously flawed legislation” that “would compel all American taxpayers to pay for research that relies on the intentional destruction of human embryos.”

In the afternoon, Bush defended his 2001 policy in a White House speech. He said Castle’s bill “would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake.”

The president met before his speech with 21 families who either have adopted or given up for adoption frozen embryos stored after in vitro fertilization treatments. With children who were once frozen embryos in attendance at his speech, Bush said they “remind us that there is no such thing as a spare embryo. These lives are not raw materials to be exploited but gifts. And I commend each of the families here today for accepting the gift of these children and offering them the gift of your love.”

In floor debate before the votes on the bills, Smith also pointed to the humanity of embryos in storage.

The embryos stored in IVF clinics “are of infinite value to an adoptive mother who may be sterile or otherwise unable to have a baby,” he said.

“I’ve met some of those kids,” Smith said. “They’re not leftovers. . . . They’re just as human and alive and full of promise as other children. Let them be adopted.”

Rep. Todd Akin, R.-Mo., told other members of the House, “You and I were once embryos. . . . Embryos may seem like some scientific or laboratory term, but, in fact, the embryo contains the unique information that defines a person. All you add is food and climate control and some time, and the embryo becomes you or me.”

Rep. Mike Pence, R.-Ind., said, “I believe it is morally wrong to destroy human embryos for the purposes of research, but I believe it is doubly morally wrong to force millions of pro-life Americans to see their tax dollars used to support research that they find morally offensive.”

Castle urged support for both bills. “We just don’t know at this point what each can do,” he said. “We ought to be investigating both.”

Ron Kind, D.-Wis., called for support of Castle’s bill, saying, “Our researchers are being held back because of current federal policy. We’re already falling behind the rest of the world in this research in light of South Korea’s recent announcement.”

It was announced May 19 a team of South Korean scientists had made a leap forward in stem cell research from cloned embryos. The scientists required only 17 eggs to procure a group of stem cells, as opposed to nearly 250 eggs required by the same team last year, The Washington Post reported.

Many opponents of embryonic stem cell research contend Castle’s bill providing funds for research on embryos left over from IVF is only the first step in a path that will lead to the cloning of embryos for research purposes.

In the vote on Castle’s legislation, 50 Republicans joined 187 Democrats and an independent in support of the bill. The “no” votes were from 180 Republicans and 14 Democrats.
With reporting by Michael Foust