As expected, a large majority in the House of Representatives voted Thursday to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But with President Bush promising to veto the measure as he did last year, and with House leaders acknowledging that they lack the votes to override such a veto, the national outlook for the research remains unsettled.
The final vote was 253 to 174, which would leave Democrats several dozen votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto in the House.
Senate leaders plan to discuss the bill in coming weeks. "We will be seeing some action on this bill within a few weeks,” said Tom Reynolds, press secretary to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Reynolds said that he expects the Senate to gather enough votes to override a veto threat.
Debate over the issue has united Democrats while dividing Republicans, some of whom complained about the president’s veto only months before the fall elections. Even solidly conservative (and strongly anti-abortion) Republicans, such as Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), crossed party lines to vote for the bill. During Thursday’s debate, he mentioned family members who could be helped by medical advances.
Thousands of embryos are thrown away as medical waste every year, and Barton said that they should be used to alleviate human suffering. “The choice is medical research or medical waste,” he said.
“When we find these cures, we will say, ‘We did the right thing today,’ ” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a sponsor of the bill.
The National Institutes of Health currently funds research for 21 embryonic cell lines. These are lines that were derived for research before President Bush’s ban in 2001.
Experts have voiced concerns that banning access to embryonic stem cells will drive U.S. researchers to institutions overseas in countries such as Britain. In response, several states have started their own efforts to finance stem cell researchers, with an eye to keeping researchers in the United States. Aaron Levine, a graduate student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has studied stem cell policy for several years. Last summer, he published a study in Nature Biotechnology that found that many stem cell scientists are considering relocating to California, which passed an initiative to provide $3 billion for stem cell research.
Still, Levine said that even as other states begin to fund stem cell research, scientists support federal funding because they are more comfortable with the grant approval process at federal agencies than with state procedures that are new and unfamiliar. He added that lifting the federal ban would reduce the uncertainty for job prospects and funding in the stem cell field -- an uncertainty that Levine said might be causing some graduate students and post-docs to consider careers in other lines of research.
Carrie D. Wolinetz, director of communications for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said that if the bill ultimately becomes law it will erase the need for researchers to keep separate labs for embryonic stem cell research. To ensure that monies from federal grants do not accidentally help support research on banned cell lines, scientists perform such research in separate labs and sometimes separate buildings.
But after following the stem cell debate for the last five years, Wolinetz declined to opine on how stem cell legislation might advance. “I gave up long ago on making predictions,” she said. “Embryo stem cells rise above easily predictable political and ideological lines.”