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Specter predicts Senate override of Bush veto on destructive embryonic stem cell bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–Advocates of federal grants for destructive embryonic stem cell research will gain the handful of votes needed in the U.S. Senate to override a promised veto by President Bush, a leader in the effort has predicted.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., estimated July 31 the legislation to liberalize the president’s policy on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has 62 votes. About 15 other senators are “thinking it over,” Specter said on “CBS News’ Face the Nation.”

“I believe that by the time the vote comes up,” Specter said, “we’ll have 67,” the two-thirds majority required to override a veto. He acknowledged, however, gaining the same percentage of votes in the House of Representatives would be a problem.

Specter’s prediction was made two days after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist endorsed the legislation. Frist’s announcement stunned foes of embryonic research, put him at odds with President Bush and gave renewed hope to backers of the controversial experimentation. The Republican from Tennessee explained his position in a July 29 speech from the Senate floor, describing it as a reaffirmation of a stance he outlined four years before. Frist, however, had said in June he did not think Bush’s more restrictive policy needed to be changed.

The Senate is expected to take up the legislation after it returns Sept. 6 from a recess. After Frist’s speech, the White House reiterated Bush’s intention to veto the proposal.

Specter is the Senate sponsor of a companion bill to one that has already passed the House. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 810, would provide federal funds for experimentation using embryos that are in storage at in vitro fertilization clinics and are donated by the parents. The president’s policy allows funding for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence prior to his August 2001 announcement barring funds for all other stem cell experimentation on embryos. Extraction of stem cells from embryos destroys the days-old human beings.

Frist’s endorsement provides the bill with “a big boost,” Specter said. After Frist’s speech, one senator told Specter he would support it and two more said they were “rethinking their position,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.

“I think now that there are many senators, and I think it’ll have an impact on the House as well, who can say, ‘Well, there’s a little political cover,’” Specter said.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., also appearing on the news program, said, “You don’t have the votes” in the House.

The House voted 238-194 for the bill in May, leaving supporters about 50 votes short of the total required for an override.

After Frist’s speech, pro-life advocates pointed to the inconsistency of his support for embryonic stem cell research while contending he is “pro-life.” Frist said he believes “human life begins at conception” and the embryo “deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.”

Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, said in a written release, “A medical doctor should know better than to say irresponsible things like he believes that embryos are ‘nascent human life’ but that it is also okay to kill those little human beings. The worst aspect of this story is that Senator Frist has definitively gutted the term ‘pro-life’ of any meaning.”

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 65 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.

John Kilner, president of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago, said in a written statement, “The implication is that human beings can be killed if others can benefit. The danger here is glaring!”

C. Ben Mitchell, a CBHD senior fellow and a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a written release, “It’s simply not consistent with the life-affirming ethic to use the weakest members of our human family for purposes of research. Abandonment is not a warrant for embryo-destructive research.”

Many opponents of embryonic stem cell research contend the House-approved bill is the first step in a path that will lead to the cloning of embryos for research purposes.

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. Pro-lifers generally favor experiments with cells from non-embryonic sources because their extraction does not normally harm the donor.

Privately funded research on embryonic stem cells is legal and 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. The federal government also underwrites experimentation on non-embryonic stem cells.

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