Bush stymies a bill that would have allowed federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells, independent of when they were created.

Family members who have adopted frozen embryo babies applaud President Bush as he makes remarks, Wednesday, July 19, 2006, on embryonic stem cell research in the East Room. President Bush cast the first veto of his 5-year presidency Wednesday, saying legislation easing limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research “crosses a moral boundary” and is wrong.  Credit: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

In May 2005, the House of Representatives passed HR 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, by a margin of 238 to 194. Over a year later, on Tuesday, the Senate passed the bill—which calls for increased federal funding for embryonic stem cell research—by a vote of 63 to 37. 

On Wednesday, July 19, President George W. Bush exercised the first veto of his presidency to kill the measure. Neither the Senate nor the House has the two-thirds majority necessary to override Bush’s veto.

David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said he congratulates Congress on their courage but also said he was displeased with the veto.

“It’s just so disappointing that [this is happening] despite the fact that every poll indicates that a majority of the population is in favor of this research,” he said. “And now that the majority of our elected representatives are in favor of this research, that President Bush is willing to respond to what is a minority opinion and hold back something that offers promise to literally millions of suffering Americans.”

Scadden added that even though Harvard receives a lot of private funding, the bill would have had a big impact on his work, allowing him to allocate all of his resources for all of his research instead of wasting time figuring out what was funded by whom and what he is allowed to use.

Scientists say embryonic stem cell research could one day lead to therapies for diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and juvenile diabetes.

In August 2001, President Bush set forth a policy that allowed for federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cells, but he limited federally supported research to lines already in existence at the time of his speech. He stated that 78 lines would be available, but only 22 of those lines were viable, only four are in common usage today and all are contaminated with mouse feeder cells. 

“By expanding the number of stem cell lines eligible for federal funding, one increases the likelihood that there will be a cell line maximally useful to a researcher interested in a specific research application,” said James Battey, chair of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force.

HR 810 would have expanded federally funded research to include stem cells derived from surplus embryos donated by fertility clinic patients. The bill even set out strict ethical guidelines for embryo donation: The embryos would have to be donated by in vitro fertilization clinics, where they were in excess of the patients’ needs. Further, it would have to be determined that the embryos in question would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded. Finally, the patients would have to provide written, informed consent without receiving compensation for their donation.

“The President’s position isn’t based on science; it’s based on ethics,” said Admiral John Agwunobi, Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, speaking on behalf of the principles underlying Bush’s policy as it stood before the vote on HR 810. “Across the many areas of research, we should always studiously avoid the harming of human life in order to treat human illness.”

Originally published July 20, 2006

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