Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Senate yesterday passed a bill to lift a Bush administration ban on federal funding for research on new lines of human embryonic stem cells, disregarding the president’s vow to veto it again.

The chamber also approved a second stem-cell-research bill endorsed by the White House that its Republican authors say skirts the moral concerns of destroying human embryos for research.

The more expansive of the two bills, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, was approved by a vote of 63-34 — the same number of yes votes that a similar bill received last year.

It’s uncertain whether the measure has enough votes to override a veto in the Senate, which would require 67 votes if the full 100-member Senate is present. A similar bill to fund embryonic stem-cell research passed the House in January by a vote of 253-174 — a margin even further away from the needed two-thirds majority.

President Bush reiterated his veto threat last night after the bill’s passage, saying the bill “crosses a moral line that I and many others find troubling. If it advances all the way through Congress to my desk, I will veto it.”

But senators who supported Mr. Reid’s proposal say it’s only a matter of time before the measure becomes law.

“The momentum continues,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and one of the lead sponsors of the bill. “The overwhelming majority of Americans — and their members of Congress — want to take the shackles off of federal researchers.”

Mr. Reid’s bill would reverse the administration’s ban on federal funding for research on embryonic stem-cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001.

“It is not often that we have the opportunity to cast a vote that is filled with as much hope and promise for the future as the embryonic stem-cell research bill we are considering today,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, one of 17 Republicans to support the bill.

“It reminds me of our country’s quest for space many years ago, which was no more than a dream when the effort began. Yet, what was only a vision when it was conceived, yielded wonders beyond anything we could have imagined.”

Critics say the bill subsidized the destruction of human life, equating the process with abortion.

“We must also remember that the embryos from which these stem cells are derived are human life,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “Extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and ends that life’s possibility. The moral boundaries this research crosses is greatly troubling — to me, and many others.”

Mr. Bush used his veto pen for the only time of his presidency last year to reject a bill providing federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The president said taxpayers should not support research on embryos at fertility clinics.

In his veto statement, Mr. Bush last night praised the “exciting and significant scientific advances … reported over the past few years on uses of stem cells that do not involve the destruction of embryos,” such as adult stem cells and umbilical-cord blood.

“Some have even produced effective therapies and treatments for disease — all without the destruction of human life,” he said.

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounced the bill as forcing “millions of taxpayers … to promote attacks on innocent human life in the name of scientific progress.”

“This debate continues to divert attention and resources away from the demonstrated therapeutic promise of morally sound research using adult and cord-blood stem cells. Not only embryonic human beings, but suffering patients and their families, are victims of the Senate’s fixation on destructive research,” he said.

But supporters of Mr. Reid’s bill say any embryos used would’ve been destroyed anyway and should be put to scientific use.

“What do you do — flush those embryos down the drain, or do you use them for lifesaving research?” Mr. Harkin said. “If these embryos are going to be destroyed, shouldn’t we give the donors the option of … letting them be used for research?”

Mr. Harkin said a presidential veto will not end the issue.

“However, I want to be very clear: If the president does veto this bill, and if we fall short of overriding his veto, then we will be back,” Mr. Harkin said. “One way or another, we are going to lift these arbitrary restrictions this year.”

An alternative bill drafted by Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Johnny Isakson of Georgia was approved by a vote of 70-28. The proposal would fund research on some embryos that die naturally or during fertility treatments.

“It is absolutely possible to further embryonic stem-cell research today without destroying a viable embryo and have a plethora of available stem cells for researchers and for scientists,” Mr. Isakson said. “This bill is a common-sense approach that protects and promotes the health of human life from conception to natural death.”

But critics of the Coleman-Isakson bill say it would do little to advance scientific research because it would retain the funding ban on new lines of human stem cells.

“The [Coleman-Isakson] legislation is more political than substantive — more political than scientific,” Mr. Reid said.

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