Despite significant debate and a veto threat, last week the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive stem cell bill designed to increase federal funding for research.
Authored by Republican Michael Castle of Delaware and Democrat Diana DeGette of Colorado, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement bill seeks to increase the number of embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding.
In August of 2001, when President Bush became the first president to authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cells, he limited funding to sixty cell lines. All of the lines had to be derived from embryos which had already been destroyed, and therefore could be used for research.
While the president and others have argued that destroying embryos for scientific research is unethical, most scientists believe that the 60 lines, only 20 of which are uncontaminated, are inadequate to conduct appropriate research.
"The current federal embryonic stem-cell research policy is simply not sufficient for the scientists to conduct the research they need to do to find cures and treatments," Castle told a news conference.
The same day, Rep. Jim Ramstadt argued that embryonic stem cell research could potentially reduce the “suffering of diabetes, spinal cord paralysis, heart disease, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, cancer, MS [multiple sclerosis], Lou Gehrig's disease and other fatal, debilitating diseases.”
President Bush, however, strongly felt that the bill “violates the clear standard I set four years ago.”
Despite the objection from the President and many other conservatives, the bill passed the House 238 – 194 and is expected to cruise through the Senate, where a nearly identical bill sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin already has 58 co-sponsors.
The bill even has the support of some prominent pro-life conservatives, including Senator Hatch, a Mormon Senator from Utah. “I know, as a long-standing pro-life Senator, that it is possible to be both anti-abortion and pro-embryonic stem cell research,” he said. "There is no greater way to promote life than to find a way to defeat untimely death and disease.”
The bill would ultimately allow for any discarded embryos to be eligible for federal research money, as long as the donors approved them for that use.
President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, arguing that “this would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life." To overrule a veto, the Senate needs 66 votes and the House needs 290. Currently, that type of support does not exist.
A sister bill, the StemCell Therapeutic and Research Act, seeks to increase funding specifically for adult and umbilical cord stem cell research. It passed the House by a vote of 431 –1, and is expected to speed through the senate and be signed into law quickly.
To date, adult stem cell research has been much more successful in developing treatments to various disorders and diseases. However, scientists fear that adult stem cell research will quickly reach the proverbial glass ceiling, and thus establishing a broader role for embryonic stem cell research is even more critical.
"There shouldn't be anything exclusive about which stem cells should be available," said former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), now president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "They should all be available to scientists."
Although the controversy continues and ethical questions still remain, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has actually endorsed both stem cell research bills.
“Our adoption of a policy is guided by one thing only, and that is quality care for our patients,” explained ASCO president Sandra Horning. “In the case of stem cell research, the Board overwhelmingly felt that the potential for patient benefit should be paramount.”
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