May 24, 2005 -- Scientists, patients, and anti-abortion groups will be watching Tuesday as lawmakers vote on whether to lift tight restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. President Bush has already threatened to veto the measure if it passes Congress.
Supporters say they expect the bill to pass by a comfortable margin, though it remains unclear whether it will garner enough support to overcome a potential White House rejection.
The bill expands the number of human embryos available for federal research funding by lifting limits laid down by Bush in August 2001. Then, in his first major address to the nation as president, Bush restricted taxpayer funding to some 77 stem cell lines already derived at that time.
The decision allowed Bush to fund some publicly popular embryonic stem cell research while avoiding spending federal dollars on studies requiring the destruction of human embryos. But many scientific and advocacy groups have protested that most of the lines are contaminated or otherwise unfit for study.
Voting on Embryo Research
On Tuesday House lawmakers will decide whether to lift Bush's restrictions and instead make all embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures eligible for federal research dollars. Up to 400,000 embryos are thought to rest in IVF freezers throughout the country, the majority of which are destroyed when no longer needed by patients trying to have children.
Donors could make their embryos available by signing detailed consent forms but would be barred from accepting any money for their donations.
"You're at the table, you make the decision, is it going to waste or is it going to be used for medical research," says Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.), a chief sponsor of the bill, known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005. "We need to get this research going," he says.
Bush on Friday said that he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk, a move that would mark the first veto of his presidency.
"I made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life is -- I'm against that. And therefore, if the bill does that, I will veto it," he said.
Bush is scheduled to deliver a speech on stem cell research at the White House on Tuesday, where he is expected to promote adoption as an alternative use of surplus embryos.
Another Possibility: Umbilical Cord Blood
More than 200 House members, including 24 Republicans, have already backed the bill, putting it close to the 218 needed to pass. But opponents predict that the bill won't get 290 votes, the number that would be needed to overcome Bush's threatened veto.
Disease research groups and scientific organizations gave the bill strong backing this week, while anti-abortion groups attacked it for promoting the destruction of human embryos.
An identical Senate bill has the backing of 32 senators, including a handful of anti-abortion lawmakers. Fifty-eight senators signed a letter to Bush last year asking him to consider relaxing restrictions on federally funded stem cell studies.
Lawmakers are also set to vote on a bill designed to smooth the distribution and collection of umbilical cord blood, another source of stem cells that have contributed to treatments for sickle cell anemia, leukemia, and other blood diseases.
The bill is expected to pass by a wide margin because most lawmakers supporting embryonic stem cell research also support expanding studies using umbilical cord blood.
"I think for the first time we realize that there's an alternative that works," says Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), an author of the cord blood bill who strongly opposes embryonic stem cell research.