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Federal stem-cell research falls to President Bush's first veto

By Tom McKay
7/21/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 810, was vetoed by President George W. Bush on July 19, extinguishing the hope held by many that the legislation would accelerate the progress of research in the field of regenerative medicine.

After two days of debate, the Senate on July 18 had passed the stem cell legislation, which would have expanded the number of embryonic stem cell lines that can be used in federally funded research.

The vote was 63-37. The bill, which easily passed the House of Representatives in May 2005 by a vote of 238-194, was swiftly vetoed by Bush on July 19. The House attempted to override the veto, but fell short of the requisite two-thirds majority on a vote of 235-193.

The research envisioned in the bill involved taking extra embryos prepared for in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures and using them in research efforts to re-grow tissue destroyed by certain diseases. According to the legislation, embryos used are donated with the "written informed consent" of the individuals for the purpose of fertility treatment, but are in excess of the needs of the individuals seeking this treatment and would otherwise be discarded. Since the embryos are slated for destruction and would never be implanted in a woman, a number of senators who oppose abortion voted for the bill.

White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that Bush's position on stem cell research has remained consistent throughout his presidency. Bush believes that the destruction of any human embryo is tantamount to murder and, Snow said, he is not willing to start down the "slippery slope of taking something living and making it dead for the purpose of research."

After the Episcopal Church's Ethics and New Genetics Task Force considered the moral implications of stem cell research, the 74th General Convention in 2003 passed Resolution 2003-A014, urging federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Acknowledging that "Episcopalians generally recognize that early embryos are owed special moral consideration," the task force determined that "[e]arly embryos remaining after IVF procedures have ended could morally be donated for embryonic stem cell research." In short, the church recognized that the embryos are not destined to become human life.

The versatility of embryonic stem cells, which can become any kind of human cell, indicates to researchers that they could potentially hold a cure for Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, some types of cancer, spinal-cord injuries, and various other ailments.

In August 2001, President Bush announced that federal money could only be used to fund research using stem-cell colonies from embryos that had been destroyed by the time of his speech, severely limiting research. Since then, the two dozen or so remaining colonies have become increasingly unreliable and contaminated. Private funding of embryonic stem cell research will go on despite the veto, but federal participation would have provided more steady and reliable funding.

Embryonic stem cell research is not the only type of progress being made. Adult stem cells are already being used in certain therapies, and researchers at Harvard may have found a technique, dubbed "cell fusion," that would create genetically controlled stem cell lines by fusing existing stem cells with DNA. (See http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2005/08/22/harvard_scientists_advance_cell_work/)  However, the ability of embryonic stem cells to become any type of human cell could allow researchers to use them to cure of a wide variety of ailments, and many think that real breakthroughs can only be achieved from embryonic research.