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Senate Passes Stem-Cell Measure; Bush Promises Veto

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to allow federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells. President Bush said he would veto the bill, just as he did in July.

Nineteen Republicans joined 44 Democrats and independents supporting the bill, which passed the Senate 63-34. Adding three Democrats who were absent would bring the total to 66, one vote short of a two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

Nearly six years ago Bush ordered that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research be limited to cell lines derived by Aug. 9, 2001. The president claimed at the time his policy would fund research on 60 genetically diverse stem lines, but scientists say because of overestimation and contamination the actual number is reduced to 21.

The bill backed by Senate Democrats would allow funding for research using embryos discarded by couples using in-vitro fertilization. There are an estimated 400,000 such embryos, most of which will eventually be destroyed.

Bush used the first veto of his presidency to kill a nearly identical measure passed last year. The White House reiterated the president’s opposition to the idea.

“This legislation crosses a moral line that would use taxpayer dollars to destroy human embryos,” said White House spokesperson Dana Perino. “And that’s a moral line the President said he would not cross, and for those reasons he would veto this bill, as well.”

Senate Democrats said they would keep coming back until they have enough votes to override a veto. A companion bill passed earlier in the House of Representatives, but by far below a veto-proof majority. Lawmakers have said they might try attaching the stem-cell measure to a piece of “must-pass” legislation.

“The Senate today passed an important bill that offers real hope to millions of Americans suffering from debilitating diseases and conditions,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement. “Americans by a huge majority favor stem cell research because they see the suffering of their own friends and relatives, they hear the opinions of experts and they put their faith in science.”

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, issued a new report calling the United States’ stem-cell policy “outdated.”

The federal government provides nearly 80 percent of funding for stem-cell research, the report said, but it is skewed toward research using non-embryonic cells. Less than a third of the $641 million earmarked for stem-cell research in fiscal 2007 will be used to fund embryonic stem-cell research, “despite scientific consensus that embryonic stem cell research holds the greater promise.”

The report said researchers have used embryonic stem cells in laboratory animals to treat paralysis, slow vision loss and to reverse some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Human embryonic stem cells have been used to create cardiovascular precursor cells, which could lead to treatment for heart disease. Other experiments hold potential for finding a cure for AIDS, diabetes and lung cancer.

By not allowing U.S. scientists to access new stem cell lines most desirable for research, the report said, federal policy drives science overseas and hurts international collaboration with foreign scientists, a crucial aspect of discovering life-saving cures.

“The current federal stem cell policy acts as a dead weight on the research, hurting the efforts of NIH [National Institute of Health], states, and individual scientists alike,” the report said. “Rather than constrain cutting-edge science with outdated policy, the federal government should update its regulations to support any stem cell research on ethically derived stem cell lines. Al­lowing legislation like the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 to pass into law would be a good start.”

Most opposition to embryonic stem cell research is religiously based. The Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other anti-abortion groups oppose it because it destroys embryos.

In 2005 the SBC passed a resolution deploring “embryo-destructive research, since it kills human beings in their earliest stages of development.”

“Unfortunately, embryonic stem cell research that causes the destruction of unborn babies is legal in the United States,” SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission head Richard Land said recently in Baptist Press. “The only question at issue before the Congress is whether or not American taxpayers are going to be required to have their tax funds used to subsidize and aid and abet it.”

In 2005 Focus on the Family founder James Dobson compared research using embryonic stem cells to Nazi experiments conducted on live human patients during and prior to the Holocaust.

Land said last week such research is “unconscionable, in that it requires the killing of our tiniest human beings in a so-far fruitless search to find imagined cures for the maladies and ailments of older and bigger human beings.”

He urged pro-life voters to contact their senators to “let them know just how opposed they are to such legislation being passed” and to let the president know “how strongly they support his continuing stance of vetoing such legislation.”

An official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned Senate passage of the bill, while the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation hailed it as “historic.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.