The Democratic-controlled Congress passed legislation Thursday to loosen restraints on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, but the bill’s supporters lacked the votes needed to override President Bush’s threatened veto.
The 247-176 House vote marked the second time in recent weeks that Democratic leaders chose to confront Bush over an issue on which they command widespread public support, following a veto struggle over a proposed troop withdrawal timetable from Iraq.
This time the controversy is at the uneasy intersection of medical research and politics, involving a type of cell that the National Institutes of Health says might serve as “a sort of repair system for the body.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appealed to Bush moments before the bill passed to sheath his “cruel veto pen,” and sign legislation that she said could help “save lives, find cures and give hope to those suffering.”
But the president responded quickly with a written statement that accused majority Democrats of recycling an old measure that he vetoed a year ago. Under the bill, “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,” he said in a statement issued in Germany, site of a summit of world leaders.
The bill drew the support of 210 House Democrats and 37 Republicans. Despite the bipartisanship, the total was 35 votes fewer than needed to override a veto.
The Senate cleared the bill several weeks ago by a margin that was one vote short of the two-thirds needed to overcome Bush’s objections.
There was no suspense about the outcome in the House, although personal experience punctuated Thursday’s hour-long debate to an unusual degree.
Moments later Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., paralyzed since a gun accident severed his spinal cord several years ago, addressed the House from his motorized wheelchair. An opponent of abortion, Langevin said, “My education on this issue has filled me with tremendous hope, not only that stem cell research might one day lead to a cure for spinal cord injuries, but that one day ... families will no longer watch in agony as a loved one with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s gradually declines.”
Opponents of the measure said they, too, support medical research, but insisted that the use of embryonic stem cells was the wrong approach on moral grounds — and possibly not even the most promising one scientifically.
“You’re talking about spare embryos now, but if it ever did work ... it would require the killing of millions of embryos,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.
He said a recent report by the U.S. Catholic Conference listed numerous breakthroughs involving medical research conducted with adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid, none of which involve the destruction of a human embryo.
Several opponents of the measure also cited a day-old report from scientists who said they had succeeded in turning ordinary skin cells from mice into an embryonic state.
Clear political subtext
Whatever the scientific implications, the political subtext was clear.
The stem cell legislation was one of six bills that Pelosi placed at the top of her agenda when Congress convened, and she chose to preside when the measure passed. So far, the only other measure among the six to make it to the White House was a minimum wage increase.
According to the National Institutes of Health Web site, scientists were first able to conduct research with embryonic stem cells in 1998.
There were no federal funds for the work until Bush announced on Aug. 9, 2001, that his administration would make it available for lines of cells that already were in existence.
Elected with the strong support of abortion foes and other conservatives, he said at the time his decision was designed to balance concerns about “protecting life and improving life.”
He also limited the funds to cell lines derived from embryos that were surplus at fertility clinics, and that had been donated from adults who had given informed consent.
Advocates of the veto-threatened legislation argue that the number of stem cell lines available for research is smaller than needed, and that some of the material has become contaminated over time by mouse embryonic skin cells that typically are placed at the bottom of culture dishes used in the research.
The bill would permit funding for research on embryonic stem cells regardless of the date of their creation, as long as they were donated from in-vitro fertilization clinics, they would “otherwise be discarded” and donors gave their approval.
“No stem cell would ever be taken from an embryo that was not destined to be destroyed in any event,” said Rep. Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican who has long bucked his party leaders to support the measure.