U.S. Senate approves stem cell bills
Legislation to expand Federal research funding faces President's almost-certain veto; two 'alternative' bills also pass muster
In a largely symbolic victory for biomedical research, the Senate yesterday (July 18) approved a controversial bill (HR 810
) to extend Federal research funding to newly derived human embryonic stem cells (hESC). President Bush, who opposes the expansion of funding on ethical grounds, has reaffirmed his promise to veto this legislation, possibly as early as today.
"It would be a real shame for the President to issue his first veto against a bill that provides so much hope for so many people," said Sean Tipton, vice president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR). "But if so, we're not done. This issue is not going away," he told The Scientist
After 12 hours of debate that began Monday afternoon, the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005" passed the Senate with bipartisan support by 63-37, four votes shy of the two-thirds necessary to over-ride a veto. Because the bill originated in the House it will be sent there first following Bush's veto for an over-ride attempt, which is likely to fail given the margin by which it originally passed last year. This means the bill will be dead for the year even if there had been enough over-ride votes in the Senate.
"The President is not going to get on the slippery slope of taking something that is living and making it dead for the purpose of research," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters yesterday. The President's veto, he added, "will be pretty swift."
"We are very pleased with the Senate vote," said Leo Furcht, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB
). "This is a case where one would think the will of public opinion will prevail, but [Bush's] statements indicate he will take actions to the contrary, which is unfortunate," Furcht told The Scientist
The Senate also unanimously approved two less-contentious bills that the president supports. The "Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act
," passed 100-0, directs the National Institutes of Health to support ways of deriving hESC without destroying human embryos -- something NIH already does. The "Fetus Farming Prohibition Act of 2006
," also passed 100-0, would prohibit trafficking human fetal tissue "gestated for research purposes."
The House later yesterday voted to expedite approval of the fetal farming bill 425-0, but unexpectedly failed to win the two-thirds votes needed to expedite passage of the alternative therapies bill, in a 273-154 vote. Bush is expected to sign the fetal farming bill into law and veto the main stem cell expansion bill this week, possibly as early as today. The House may take up the alternative therapies bill later this week.
The stem cell expansion bill would open Federal research funding to hESC lines regardless of when they were derived. Current Federal funding is limited
to an approved list
of stem cell lines that were derived from surplus embryos created for in vitro
fertilization before Aug. 9, 2001
-- the date Bush announced the policy, making federal hESC research funding available for the first time.
Over the past two days, both Democrats and Republicans took to the podium and told stories of illnesses, often personal and emotional. "I lost a beautiful young daughter some years ago to heart disease," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, (D-N.D.). "I wondered then, and I wonder now, and I will wonder for some long while, if there is anything that we could do to unlock the mystery of that devastating killer," he said, urging support for the expansion bill.
"It is safe to say that no scientific issue is more divisive today than this discussion surrounding stem cells," said Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (R- Tenn.), who spent months brokering
the debate and votes. Frist, a physician and possible presidential contender in 2008, reversed his position last year to support additional Federal hESC funding. "I think the limit on cell lines available for federally funded research is too restrictive," Frist said Monday, kicking off the marathon debate on the Senate floor.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), a leading supporter of the expansion bill, compared opposition to hESC research to the criticism leveled against Galileo and Columbus. "A century from now, people will look back at this debate on stem cell research and wonder how we cannot possibly utilize all of the benefits of science to stop people from dying, to stop people from suffering, when we have these embryos which are either going to be thrown away or used," Specter said during the debate.
"Do we use taxpayer dollars, Federal taxpayer dollars, to destroy young human life for research purposes?" countered Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who appeared with three children adopted by way of in vitro
fertilization clinics. "If we had taken the half a billion dollars, $500 million, that we have invested in embryonic stem cell research in animals and humans, and invested that instead in adult stem cell research and cord blood research, we would probably have a lot more people in clinical trials today."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), a physician who opposes hESC research, said problems relating to tissue rejection will complicate development of useful therapies. "Every disease save ALS has an adult stem cell or cord blood stem cell cure that has already been proven in humans," he said, arguing against the expansion bill.
Democrats say they hope the stem cell issue will assume greater prominence in tight congressional election races later this year, as Republicans strive to hold onto majorities in both houses.
Commentary on the debate even extended overseas. Martin Rees, president of the The Royal Society, said in a statement
yesterday that "millions of patients across the world could suffer" if Bush vetoes the bill. Limiting hESC funding to current U.S. policy "would surely mean that the United States will continue to fall behind in this important and exciting area," Rees said.
Links within this article:
"Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005" (HR 810)
FASEB letter to Bush, July 17, 2006.
"Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act" (S 2754)
Fetus Farming Prohibition Act of 2006 (S 3504)
K. Pallarito, "NIH stem cell chief resigns," The Scientist
, April 21, 2006
NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry
The President Discusses Stem Cell Research
T Agres, "U.S. Senate to OK expanded stem cell bill? July 10, 2006
"Patients worldwide could suffer if US stem cell Bill is vetoed,"