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Stem cell vote not veto proof

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States Senate again has voted to fund stem cell research that destroys human embryos, but it also again has failed to do so with a majority large enough to overcome a veto by President Bush.

The Senate voted 63-34 for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act April 11. The bill would liberalize a policy instituted by President Bush in 2001 that prohibits federal grants for destructive embryonic stem cell research. The measure (S. 5), similar to one passed in January by the House of Representatives, would provide funds for research using stem cells procured from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the tiny human beings.

Senators also voted 70-28 for another stem cell measure, this one designed to promote efforts to derive stem cells with the qualities of those found in embryos -– and known as pluripotent cells — without creating embryos for experimentation or destroying them.

Passage of S. 5, which pro-life advocates strongly opposed, was a foregone conclusion, but its supporters had hoped to gain a two-thirds majority to demonstrate the Senate had the ability to override a veto. The vote, however, would have fallen short of a veto-proof majority even if the three senators who did not participate had been present and supported the bill.

The House fell even further short when it approved its version earlier this year. The House vote was 253-174, leaving it more than 30 votes below a two-thirds majority.

It is expected representatives will vote, possibly soon, on the Senate version, which differs slightly from the House-approved bill.

The president reiterated after the Senate vote he would veto the measure if it reaches his desk. The White House had also used a veto warning before the House took its latest vote.

The Senate-passed bill “crosses a moral line that I and many others find troubling,” Bush said April 11 in promising a veto. Bush has said other forms of stem cell research — ones that don’t destroy embryos — should instead be promoted. He also has said the unused embryos could be adopted by infertile couples instead of destroyed.

Pro-life leaders expressed dismay at the Senate action, which followed 20 hours of debate over two days, but were grateful the vote fell short of the supporters’ goal.

“I am disappointed that the vote was that close to two-thirds,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, “but I am gratified that there is still not a veto-proof majority in the United States Senate in favor of legislation that would use federal tax money to destroy the lives of our tiniest human beings to seek potential treatments and cures for older and bigger human beings.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a written statement, “Rather than defend human dignity, a majority of senators approved legislation to force taxpayers to fund research that requires the destruction of human life.” Perkins said he welcomed “the ethical stand” 34 senators took in voting against the bill.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) applauded the vote, but the specter of a veto prevailed.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called S. 5 “an important bill that offers real hope to millions of American suffering from debilitating diseases and conditions. As Americans wait for progress, our scientists and innovators are marking time, waiting for President Bush to keep hope alive.”

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions.

ESCR advocates contend stem cells from embryos possess more therapeutic potential than their non-embryonic counterparts. Foes of federal funds for ESCR not only oppose such research because it destroys embryos, but they point out 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, which is funded by the federal government, does not harm the donor and has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Just dates before the vote, a study out of Brazil was released showing that 13 of 15 type 1 diabetic patients were seemingly cured with a procedure using their own stem cells (sometimes called adult stem cells).

The breakdown by party on S. 5 was:

— Voting “yes:” 44 Democrats, 17 Republicans and two independents;

— Voting “no:” 32 Republicans and two Democrats.

The lone Democrats opposing the bill were Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

The GOP members who voted for the measure were Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Robert Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both of Utah; Richard Burr of North Carolina; Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, both of Mississippi; Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine; Judd Gregg of New Hampshire; Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas; Richard Lugar of Indiana; John McCain of Arizona; Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens, both of Alaska; Gordon Smith of Oregon; Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; and John Warner of Virginia.

The senators who did not vote were all Democrats: Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Johnson is seeking to recover from a brain hemorrhage suffered in December.

Last year, the Senate passed a similar bill with a 63-37 vote in July before Bush vetoed it. The latest action showed ESCR advocates had gained some votes, but not enough, even after Democrats gained control of the Senate in November’s election.

The other bill passed by the Senate April 11 is the Hope Offered Through Principled and Ethical Stem Cell Research Act (S. 30). Known as the HOPE Act, the bill seeks to advance embryonic-like stem cell research without harming the donors, although it permits the extraction of cells from “naturally dead” embryos.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission declined to take a position on the legislation because of uncertainty over when embryos are “naturally dead.”

Land and ERLC bioethics consultant C. Ben Mitchell issued a statement April 11 before the Senate vote. They said they could “neither endorse nor oppose [S. 30] in its current form.” They commended the bill sponsors’ attempts to promote ethical research but expressed concern the measure may “tacitly authorize the destruction of so-called ‘low grade’ but viable embryos, not just deceased embryos.”

The Senate’s two independents – Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, both of Connecticut –- joined 26 Democrats in voting against S. 30. Supporting the legislation were all 49 Republicans and 21 Democrats.