US House of Representatives forces stem cell funding issue

May 26, 2005

Brussels, 25 May 2005

The US Congress's lower chamber, the House of Representatives, has voted in favour of a bill to lift restrictions on government funding for embryonic stem cell research. This sets up a potential confrontation with the man that first introduced the federal funding restrictions in 2001, US President George W Bush, who has promised to veto the bill if it passes Congress's upper chamber, the US Senate.

The bill was passed by 238 votes to 194, which falls short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the Presidential veto. If Mr Bush does eventually exercise his veto, it will be the first time he has done so while in office. The US President's recent comments suggest, however, that he is perfectly prepared to use his veto to halt progress of a bill that he describes as 'a mistake'.

'This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life,' Mr Bush said before the vote on 24 May. 'Crossing that line would be a great mistake.'

During the debate preceding the vote, Republican Representative Charlie Bas spoke in support of the proposals, urging his colleagues to focus on the treatments and cures that could result from embryonic stem cell research. 'For America to stand back because of a moral principle and not allow sound scientific research to proceed under the umbrella of the National Institute of Health, I think, is unconscionable,' he said.

Indeed, a number of Representatives who oppose abortion rights actually voted in favour of the bill because of the medical promise that they feel embryonic stem cells offer. 'Who can say that prolonging life is not pro-life?' said Republican Representative Jo Ann Emerson, who describes herself as having a 'perfect' pro-life record. 'I must follow my heart on this and cast a vote in favour.'

However, opponents of the bill say that it remains to be seen whether embryonic stem cell research will actually lead to cures, and that even if it does, funding such research using taxpayer's money would be wrong. 'In the life of men and nations some mistakes you can't undo,' said the Republican Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay. 'If we afford the little embryo any shred of respect and dignity we cannot in good faith use taxpayer dollars to destroy them.'

While no date has yet been set for a Senate vote on the bill, the Republican Leader in the upper chamber, Bill Frist, is reported to be coming under pressure to allow a debate to proceed in the near future. Meanwhile Mr DeLay, along with President Bush, is instead urging adoption of a separate bill that would provide federal funding for research using stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood and adult donors, and which has already passed a vote in the House of Representatives by 431 to 1 in favour.

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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