Stem-cell vote defies Bush
US House of Representatives moves to relax constraints on embryo work.
In a challenge to a three-year-old presidential policy, lawmakers in the United States have passed a measure that would expand federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research.
The House of Representatives passed the measure by a large majority (238 to 194) on Tuesday night. Called the ‘Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act’, it would allow the US federal government to spend money on stem-cell lines that are derived from embryos discarded by in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. The bill would ease restrictions set by President George W. Bush, who said on 9 August 2001 that scientists could not use federal funds to work on human embryonic stem-cell lines created after that date.
Scientists and patient advocates say embryonic stem-cell research is an extremely promising area that could lead to medical cures and save millions of lives. But people who believe embryos are human beings say it is wrong to use them in experiments.
The bill's supporters say the vote is a victory for science and for patients, and predict that it will sail across its next hurdle: the US Senate.
"By passing legislation, we are moving to reassert America's ethical and scientific leadership on embryonic stem-cell research," says Diana DeGette (Democrat, Colorado). DeGette is one of the bill's two primary sponsors; the other is Mike Castle (Republican, Delaware).
Science and patient advocacy groups also praised the bill's passage. "Many of our IVF patients have expressed their wishes to donate their stored embryos that are not going to be used for reproductive purposes to a cause that could help others," read a statement from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, based in Birmingham, Alabama. "With the passage of this legislation, we hope to see the expansion of opportunity for embryonic stem cell research that will allow them to do so."
But the bill's opponents have downplayed the significance of the vote, because Bush has vowed to veto the measure if the Senate passes it. A presidential veto would almost certainly prevent the bill from becoming law.
It seems clear, however, that the measure's progress marks the next stage in the US debate on embryonic stem-cell research. The House has voted down measures in favour of such research before. But significant work is being done outside the United States: for instance, researchers in South Korea announced major achievements just last week (see Korean team lauded for stem-cell advance) And patient advocates are pushing for more US involvement in the field.
At the same time, public opinion polls have shown that many members of Bush's own party support the research. A handful of influential Republican lawmakers have even decided that they are permitted to support embryonic stem-cell research despite their pro-life stance.
Setting a precedent
DeGette predicts that it will not be easy for the president to veto the bill, if the Senate passes it. He has never used one before, and some fear that it would paint him and his Republican party as anti-research and extremist. This is especially true after the debate in March over the Florida woman Terry Schiavo’s right to die, in which intervention from Congress proved unpopular.
"We don't think the president will want to make this his first veto," DeGette says. She and Castle say they hope Bush will be willing to work out a compromise.