In defiance of a presidential veto threat, US senators who support embryonic stem cell research are pushing for a quick vote on a bill passed by the House that would lift restrictions on such studies.
“The American people cannot afford to wait any longer for our top scientists to realise the full potential of stem cell research,” said Sen Tom Harkin of Iowa, the bill’s chief Democratic sponsor.
No Senate debate has been scheduled, according to aides to Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee who is a doctor and an abortion opponent. He has long been an ally of US President George Bush, who last week said he would veto the bill.
The Republican-controlled House’s 238-194 vote yesterday stung some abortion opponents, even though it fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. Such an action by Bush would be the first of his presidency.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Harkin and Republican Sen Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, is identical to the approved House version. It would lift Bush’s 2001 restrictions on federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research.
Proponents say federal funding for the research on days-old embryos, using a process that destroys them, would accelerate the search for treatments and perhaps cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They say the embryos would have been discarded anyway.
Opponents dispute that, questioning any evidence that embryonic stem cell research will lead to cures. They say taxpayers should not be forced to finance science they see as an attack on unborn babies and Bush’s “culture of life.”
Bush yesterday called the House bill “a mistake.”
Republican Sen Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, one of the Senate’s staunchest opponents of abortion, said he was ”disheartened” by the House’s approval but pleased by Bush’s veto threat.
“Government should encourage lifesaving research, but should focus on science that both works and is ethical,” he said.
The bill’s supporters said the Senate should weigh in despite the opposition.
“Let’s have an up-or-down vote,” Sen Edward Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in an interview.
The medical promise of embryonic stem cell research prompted several House members of both parties who oppose abortion rights to vote yes nonetheless. The moral obligation, they argued, rested on Congress to fund research that could lead to cures for debilitating illnesses.
“Who can say that prolonging a life is not pro-life?” said Republican Rep Jo Ann Emerson, who said she had a ”perfect” pro-life record and whose mother-in-law had died the night before of Alzheimer’s disease.
“I must follow my heart on this and cast a vote in favour,” she said.
“Being pro-life also means fighting for policies that will eliminate pain and suffering,” said Rep James R Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who was paralysed at 16 in a gun accident.
But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and other House members who voted against the bill said that, even if this type of embryonic stem cell research were proven to cure disease, forcing taxpayers to foot the bill would still be wrong.
“In the life of men and nations, some mistakes you can’t undo,” DeLay said as he closed the House debate. “If we afford the little embryo any shred of respect and dignity, we cannot in good faith use taxpayer dollars to destroy them.”
He and Bush urged passage of another measure that would fund research and treatment on stem cells derived instead from umbilical cord blood and adults.
That bill passed 430-1, with Texas Rep Ron Paul, a Republican, the lone no vote.