boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

House votes to lift limits on stem cells

Tally too close to override a veto by Bush

WASHINGTON -- After nearly four hours of emotional debate, the House of Representatives yesterday agreed to lift Bush administration restrictions on federallyfunded embryonic stem cell research.

The bill would allow federal funding of stem cell research involving excess embryos from fertility clinics, embryos that would otherwise be discarded. Donors would be required to provide written consent and could not be paid for the embryos.

The more controversial aspect of creating the new lines, a process that involves destroying embryos, would occur only at privately-funded clinics, said Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who cosponsored the bill. The new lines then would be available to federally-funded researchers.

Opponents, led by House majority leader Tom DeLay, said it was morally indefensible to spend taxpayer dollars on research that destroys human embryos, describing them as children waiting to be born. Supporters said the bill will spur research that could result in medical therapies that save or improve the lives of millions of Americans.

The Senate appears ready to pass similar legislation by more than 60 votes. But the House vote, 238 to 194, was not large enough to overcome an expected veto -- the first by President Bush after more than four years in office.

Bush, surrounded yesterday afternoon by children born to mothers using embryos that had been created for other couples' fertility treatments, said before the vote that ''this bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake."

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, cosponsored by Representatives Michael N. Castle, Republican of Delaware, and DeGette, would lift a ban imposed by Bush on federal funds for research on embryonic-stem cell lines created after 2001. The Bush policy limited stem cell research to the 78 lines that existed then, only 22 of which federally-supported researchers can use now.

The sponsors say the law would maintain the ethical treatment of embryos because it does not allow them to be created for research. And supporters of the bill expressed concern that the United States is being left behind in a rapidly advancing field of medical research that holds great promise.

Embryonic stem cells are blank slates that could become any tissue in the body. For example, the embryonic stem cells could become brain cells that may have the potential to treat such neurological disorders as Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists frustrated by their inability to tap into the power of the research tool hailed the vote.

''Bravo for them going up against the president," said Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology, a Worcester biotechnology company experimenting with privately-funded embryonic stem cells to treat blindness. ''The passage of this bill is far more important than anyone realizes. The field of stem cell research has been crippled by the lack of accessible, quality stem cell lines."

For all their promise, embryonic stem cells have been difficult for scientists to work with, Lanza said. The 78 stem cell lines that existed at the time of Bush's Aug. 9, 2001, policy are hard to grow and have shown signs of genetic abnormality, Lanza said.

The congressional action is being taken days after South Korean scientists disclosed a technique that allows researchers to efficiently create a line of cloned embryonic stem cells using eggs produced in a single fertility treatment.

And it is occurring amid efforts by legislatures in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California to embrace and fund embryonic-stem cell research. California has committed $3 billion for stem cell research. In Massachusetts, Governor Mitt Romney has said he will veto the state bill, but both chambers approved it with majorities large enough to override him.

Sponsors in the US Senate -- Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa -- sent a letter last night to Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate majority leader, seeking a vote as soon as possible. The letter, also signed by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, told Frist that the issue is critical and is endorsed by most Americans. The stem cells lines currently eligible for federal research funds ''will never be sufficient to realize the full potential of stem cell research," they wrote.

The debate forced members of Congress to confront an emotional and complex issue.

Voting ''yes" on the bill would permit taxpayers' money to pay for ''the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation," said DeLay, a Texas Republican, as he opened debate.

Democrat Pete Stark of California said, '' I don't need a lecture from the majority leader on moral and ethical leadership," alluding to questions swirling around DeLay about travel and fund-raising.

Later, DeLay urged members of the House to vote against the Castle-DeGette measure and instead to endorse a bill that would devote $79 million in federal funds for adult-stem cell research. Adult stem cells are collected from umbilical cords after a woman gives birth.

''This bill . . . represents a perfect contrast to speculative and harmful methods of embryonic-stem cell research. This is the right stem cell bill," DeLay said.

Supporters of the use of adult stem cells endorse the therapy because it does not destroy human embryos.

Representative Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, one of the bill's cosponsors, said extracting stem cells from umbilical cords transforms ''medical waste" into medical miracles.

The House passed the umbilical cord blood bill, 431 to 1.

Opponents of the CastleDeGette measure, including Representative Mike Pence, contended that embryonic-stem cell research has not, to date, produced a single medical treatment. But, the Indiana Republican added, that wasn't the real issue before the House. The crucial question, Pence said, is who pays.

''The proponents of this legislation don't just want to be able to do embryonic-stem cell research; they want me to pay for it," he said. ''I have a problem with that." He and others called it ''morally wrong" to use tax dollars paid by millions of Americans for whom ''human life is sacred" for research that destroys human embryos.

His comments echoed those made earlier in the day by Steve Johnson, the father of a girl, Zara, who is one of 81 ''snowflake" children, those born to mothers using the surplus embryos from fertility clinic treatments. The Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, run by Nightlight Christian Adoptions, is heavily promoted by James Dobson, founder of the conservative Focus on the Family.

''My soul aches for a cure," said Johnson, 44, of Exeter Township, Penn., who was paralyzed in a cycling accident 12 years ago. ''Would I kill my daughter so I could walk again? Of course not. No one would. Why do we think it is OK to kill someone else's daughter?"

Proponents emphasized the promise of therapies that could come from hundreds of thousands of unadopted, surplus embryos.

''Stem cell research gives us hope and a reason to believe," countered Representative James R. Langevin, Democrat of Rhode Island. ''And I believe, one day, a child with diabetes will no longer face a lifetime of painful shots and tests. . . . And I believe, one day, I will walk again," said Langevin, who has used a wheelchair since an accidental gunshot severed his spinal cord at age 16. ''Being prolife also means fighting for policies that will eliminate pain and suffering."

The day's main drama, however, was provided by members of the House who did not vote along party lines.

Representative Joe Barton said he's voted, over 21 years, nearly 100 percent of the time in accordance with the antiabortion coalition. Yesterday's vote marked the second the Texas Republican broke rank. Barton was one of 50 Republicans who voted in favor of the bill.

Barton cited family health tragedies for his decision. His father died of complications from diabetes at age 71. His brother died at 44 from liver cancer. His first granddaughter was stillborn, due to a crimped umbilical cord.

''Maybe the research that we're debating today could not have helped any of those diseases or could not have helped my granddaughter, but, maybe it could," Barton said. He said breakthroughs could come from adult or embryonic stem cells.

Opponents applauded after the ''nay" votes reached 147, enough dissent to make the bill unlikely to survive a veto.

After the vote, however, Castle said he was ''elated."

''You've got to remember, the president of the United States was opposed to this. All of the leadership in the Republican house was opposed to it," he said. ''We still won the vote and still got 50 Republican votes."

''My sense is that the White House cannot ignore this vote. The Senate will not ignore this vote," he said.

Diedtra Henderson can be reached at dhenderson@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives