Bush vetoes bill allowing more federal funding for stem cell research

Despite the presidential veto, embryonic stem cell researchers are optimistic that bipartisan support for federal funding shows time is on their side.

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted Aug. 7, 2006

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Both sides in the debate over embryonic stem cell research had something to cheer about in last month's events on Capitol Hill. Supporters took heart after the Senate voted 63-37 on a bill that would allow federal funding for stem cell research on embryos scheduled to be discarded by fertility clinics. Opponents applauded when President Bush used the first veto of his tenure to prevent the bill from becoming law, followed by a House vote failing to override the veto.

Supporters of federal funding such as the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which counts more than 90 patient, scientific and physician organizations, including the AMA, as members, said time is on their side.

"Passing the bill in the Senate by such a large margin and forcing the president into the first veto of his administration, while it's not the policy outcome we would have wanted, makes it clear that the American people are on our side on this," said Sean B. Tipton, CAMR president.

Robert Scheidt, MD, chair of the ethics commission of the Christian Medical and Dental Assns., said he was not surprised by the Senate vote but was pleased by the president's action.

"It was an error in judgment by the Senate," said Dr. Scheidt, a retired general surgeon. "The president's veto was a properly used veto. From any perspective, the production of human embryos and their destruction at 14 days is the ending of human life. It violates a basic ethical rule, which is don't do evil that good may come."

Research supporters argue that embryonic stem cells have unique potential to develop into any kind of bodily tissue, and advancements could ultimately help treat 100 million Americans, including those who have illnesses such as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, MD (R, Tenn.), and the other 99 senators, AMA CEO Michael D. Maves, MD, MBA, reiterated the Association's position in favor of federal funding for stem cell research derived from embryos, adult cells and cord blood. The AMA House of Delegates first adopted policy supporting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in 1999.

Dr. Frist earlier opposed funding the research, but reversed course.

"That was particularly distressing because Bill Frist was one of us," Dr. Scheidt said, adding that "we as a pro-life movement have been unable to persuade the majority of Americans of the moral worth and respect due to a 14-day-old human life."

Tipton said the Senate vote shows "the American people and their elected representatives see a distinction between a fetus in an established pregnancy and a fertilized egg in a laboratory."

Is federal funding necessary?

On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush adopted a policy limiting embryonic stem cell funding to research on a few dozen existing lines that had been derived from embryos before that date. He would not fund further research, arguing that embryos are a form of human life that shouldn't be destroyed. Since then, a number of states and private donors have rushed to fill the void with an estimated $4 billion in funding, although $3 billion of that total is being delayed by ongoing litigation over California's 2004 ballot initiative.

Bush's funding limits have upset people "so much that there's probably more funding for embryonic stem cell research than there otherwise would have been," said Ron Bailey, a research supporter and author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution. Still, Bailey added, the Bush policy has impeded research because institutions have had to create entirely new facilities for embryonic stem cell research in order to avoid any intermingling of National Institutes of Health grant money with private funds.

Tipton said changing policy at the federal level is crucial.

"NIH funding is the lifeblood of biomedical research in this country," he said. "We're limping forward with the crutch of private funds and state funds, but there's nothing like federal oversight and support."

As of now, embryonic stem cell research is still largely unregulated, according to R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the National Academy of Sciences' Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee.

The committee is charged with implementing guidelines that an earlier NAS committee released in 2005 and is surveying research institutions to measure compliance. The guidelines cover areas such as human research protections, informed consent for donors of eggs, somatic cells or embryos; and call for reimbursing donors only for direct costs such as taxi rides and lost pay.

Speaking only for herself, Charo predicted the stem cell issue could affect this year's elections, particularly in Missouri where a pro-research ballot initiative has become a major issue in that state's U.S. Senate race. In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle "is making this a big part of his campaign," Charo said. Doyle earlier vetoed a ban on research passed by the state's Republican-led Legislature.

Congress also considered two other stem cell-related bills in July. A bill that bans the as-yet untried practice of fetal farming -- creating a pregnancy for the sole purpose of acquiring fetal tissue for research -- passed unanimously in the House and Senate and the president signed the bill. The other bill voiced support for NIH's nonembryonic stem cell research efforts. Though the Senate passed it 100-0, it was derided as merely symbolic and lost in the House by a 154-273 vote.

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Physicians favor research, federal funding

The majority of physicians and patients favor embryonic stem cell research. A May 2006 Gallup Organization poll showed that 61% of Americans favor embryonic stem cell research, and an October 2004 poll found that 79% of physicians opposed President Bush's funding limits. Here's what doctors had to say about the issue last month:

Favor Oppose Not Sure
Embryonic stem cell research 83% 17% N/A
Federal funding for stem cell research using IVF embryos scheduled to be discarded 78% 15% 7%

Source: HCD Research and Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, July 17-18 poll of 737 physicians.

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