May 24, 2005 -- House lawmakers gave broad bipartisan backing to the expansion of federally funded embryonic stem cell research Tuesday despite President Bush's vow to veto the bill.
In a separate action, lawmakers also overwhelmingly approved a less controversial bill promoting the study and use of stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood, which has already been used to treat leukemia and other blood disorders.
After an emotional debate, members voted 238-194 to override rules laid down by Bush in August 2001 that limited government research dollars to stem cell lines already derived at the time.
The bill lifts an Aug. 9, 2001, deadline and makes cell lines derived after that date eligible for taxpayer-funded research. An estimated 125 additional stem cell lines as well as future lines derived from embryos left over by in vitro fertilization procedures would fall under the expanded policy.
As many as 400,000 human embryos are stored in freezers at U.S. in vitro fertilization clinics. Donor parents would be able to provide excess embryos for research as long as they provided written informed consent and accepted no money for their use, according to the bill.
The bill received strong backing from scientific and research advocacy organizations, many of which have criticized the White House policy as too restrictive. But the bill remains staunchly opposed by pro-life lawmakers, who warn that the research is unethical because human embryos must be destroyed in order to allow the collection of stem cells.
Argument Over Stem Cell Potential
Many researchers predict that embryonic stem cells have the potential to cure a variety of diseases because they have the ability to transform into any type of cell.
"This bill will not in and of itself cure any diseases. But it will open the door," says Rep. Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.) one of the bill's co-authors.
The bill came to the House floor despite opposition from Republican leaders, who agreed several months ago to allow a vote on research that had the support of the majority of voters and members of Congress. Fifty Republicans went against Bush in supporting the measure.
Tuesday's debate at times reached an emotional pitch, with several conservative Republicans arguing embryonic stem cell research does not violate their pro-life principles and others describing loved ones who suffered with incurable diseases.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told colleagues of a brother who died from liver cancer at age 44 and of his father, who succumbed to complications related to diabetes at age 71. Barton boasted about a 19-year congressional career in which he has cast just one vote not supported by pro-life groups.
"After this vote today, I am going to be 100% minus two," he said. "Where I came down is, let's look at all the avenues."
Conservative Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) argued that research was the best use for embryos that would otherwise be discarded after being stored in clinics. "Those are embryos that we can use for stem cell research. This is an issue of life for me," he said.
Opponents have consistently complained that supporters oversell the promise of embryonic stem cells. They also argue that the research requires the taking of nascent human lives in the form of embryos.
"That is the essence of the experiment: Kill some in the hopes of saving others," said House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas)
"Science tells us what we can do. Science does not tell us what we should do," said Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-Calif.).
What's Next for Stem Cell Legislation
The bill's fate remains unclear despite Tuesday's passage. The Senate has yet to act on an identical measure, though 58 of 100 senators signed a letter last year asking Bush to expand federal funding for experiments using embryonic stem cells.
Bush last Friday threatened to use the first veto of his presidency to block the bill if it reaches his desk. Bush repeated his opposition to the bill on Tuesday at an event honoring families whose children were once other couples' embryos.
"There is no such thing as a spare embryo. Every embryo is unique and genetically complete, like every other human being. These lives are not raw material to be exploited, but gifts," he said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a key supporter of embryonic stem cell research, tells WebMD that he would seek Senate action on the bill "by the end of the summer."
Lawmakers also overwhelmingly approved a measure providing $79 million over five years for a national umbilical cord blood database. Supporters said the money would make it easier for patients to access cord blood donations, which have shown some effectiveness in curing blood disorders. The bill also promotes cord blood research by automatically devoting donations unsuitable for transplant to scientific efforts.