June 23, 2004 -- House lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill Wednesday designed to add to mounting pressure on President Bush to relax limitations on federally funded embryonic stem cell research.
The bill allows the government to fund research on stem cells derived from embryos unused in vitro fertilization procedures and slated for destruction. It prohibits patients or clinics from receiving any money in exchange for the embryos.
The measure would expand the number of stem cell lines eligible for funding.
Embryonic stem cells are cells that can develop into any type of cell in the human body Stem cells can reproduce themselves, creating a line of stem cells for researchers to work with.
Bill sponsors say they have enough support to pass the bill in the House, but they stress that they want to avoid a potentially embarrassing vote for the president and instead convince the White House to alter its stem cell policy.
President Bush issued a presidential directive on August 9, 2001, limiting federal research funding to embryonic stem cells in existing cell lines. Bush said at the time that he wanted to advance a promising area of research without promoting the destruction of embryos that had the potential to develop into human life. The process of extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys the embryo.
A bipartisan group of 206 House members signed an April 28 letter asking President Bush to change the policy. The letter echoed complaints by many scientists that only 15 or so cell lines are suitable for research.
"Government policy, not scientific limitation, is now holding stem cell research back," says bill co-sponsor Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).
Supporters Boast Majority
"Our belief is that we have a working majority at this time," says Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a co-author of the measure.
Republican House leaders have opposed bills that would force the president to widen federal funding for embryonic stem cell studies. Under House rules, a majority of members can force leaders to hold a vote on a bill by signing what is called a discharge petition. Supporters say that they will resist circulating a petition with the hopes that President Bush will bow to mounting pressure to increase research dollars.
"Our intention is to enhance the issue and put pressure on the White House to change the policy on its own. That would be our preference," says DeGette.
A group of 142 universities and health organizations, including the American Medical Association, sent a letter to Bush today asking for an expansion in stem cell funding. The groups say the funding is necessary to further research on stem cells' potential for repairing tissue damaged by degenerative illnesses including diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's diseases.
White House Firm
White House spokesman Trent Duffy says that the president's stem cell policy remains unchanged and that Bush remains unwilling to support research that "crosses a fundamental moral line" involving the destruction of human embryos. "The president's policy is grounded in principle that we cannot have unbridled scientific research that is not founded on some ethical and moral principle," he tells WebMD.
Duffy says that to date the National Institutes of Health has sent out 409 shipments of stem cells to researchers around the world under the White House policy, proving that research is moving forward.
More pressure came from the Senate earlier this month, when 58 senators, including 14 Republicans, wrote to Bush urging a stem cell policy shift. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told WebMD at the time that "more than 60" senators back a bill he co-authored expanding fundable embryonic stem cell studies, enough to overcome procedural hurdles in that body.