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House passes embryonic stem cell bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–The House of Representatives voted June 7 for the second time this year to fund stem cell research that destroys embryos, but the measure lost votes even as new studies appeared to undermine arguments for the destructive experimentation.

The House passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act with a 247-176 roll call. The bill will advance to President Bush, who again promised to veto the legislation, as he did last year.

A veto by the president will mean the Senate will have first shot at an override, which requires a two-thirds majority, but congressional supporters of the bill seem incapable of reaching that goal in both chambers.

The Senate was much closer to a super-majority when it voted 63-34 for its version, S. 5, in April. Even if the three senators who missed the first vote support the override, supporters of the bill will need another member to change his vote in order to achieve a two-thirds majority.

In January, the House achieved six more “yes” votes than it did June 7 in approving a slightly different measure, 253-174. Even then, supporters were more than 30 votes short of a two-thirds majority. The House had to vote a second time because the Senate changed the legislation.

The bill would liberalize a policy instituted by Bush in 2001 that prohibits federal grants for destructive embryonic stem cell research. The measure would provide funds for research using stem cells procured from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the days-old human beings.

Southern Baptist pro-life leader Richard Land decried the House vote but expressed trust in Bush’s willingness to veto the measure.

“Once again, a majority of one of our two houses of Congress has made a terrible mistake in seeking to commodify human life through harvesting the stem cells of embryos, causing their deaths,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “I join millions of other Americans in being confident that the president will continue to keep his campaign pledges in both 2000 and 2004 to block federal funding for such research.”

In fact, Bush reiterated after the House vote he would use his veto power.

“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 president said in a written statement. “If this bill were to become law, 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.”

The House vote occurred the same week that three new studies showed skin cells can be converted to embryonic-like cells in the laboratory, according to the journal Nature. The research on mice found the skin cells could be formatted to be nearly identical to embryonic cells, which many scientists believe are the most potent and flexible for therapies. Experiments remain to be done on human beings, but the development raised more doubts about contentions by embryonic stem cell research proponents that the federal government needs to fund the deadly research.

“Recent scientific developments have reinforced my conviction that stem cell science can progress in ethical ways,” Bush said in his statement. “These reports give us added hope that we may one day enjoy the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells without destroying human life.”

There is no federal ban on the practice of embryonic stem cell research, only on its public funding. The U.S. government provides grants for non-embryonic research, which does not harm donors.

The House roll call June 7 showed 210 Democrats and 37 Republicans voted for the bill, while 160 Republicans and 16 Democrats opposed it.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– has nearly universal support. Such research has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.