US President George Bush has vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have removed restrictions on federally-funded human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research in America. The bill - known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 (HR 810) - was debated alongside two other bills dealing with issues in ES cell research on Monday and Tuesday of this week, and on Tuesday the Senate finally approved the measure by 63 votes to 37.
The bill had already been passed by the House of Representatives in May 2005, by 238 votes to 194, but ran out of time in the Senate last year and so was stalled until this week. It would have allowed federal funds to be used for research on ES cells derived from surplus embryos left over from fertility treatments and voluntarily donated by patients.
On 9 August 2001, Bush, who morally opposes any research that would involve the destruction of human embryos, announced that no federal funds would be available for researchers working on human ES cells created after that date. At the time it was estimated that 78 ES cell lines would be available to US researchers, but later evidence showed that the number actually available is closer to 20. Federal researchers have complained about the lack of ES cell lines available to them, as well as saying that the ones that are available will never be suitable for clinical applications as they have been grown using mouse 'feeder' cells. ES cell lines created since Bush's policy was put in place have not used mouse cells, and so are potentially better in terms of future research on humans and clinical trials. A number of US states have passed their own legislation allowing state funds to be used in research, including the creation of new cell lines.
Bush, however, pledged to veto the bill almost as soon as it had been passed by the House of Representatives last year - and this pledge has been restated at almost every turn since. In order to override a Presidential Veto there needed to be a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber - something neither achieved, although the Senate vote on Tuesday only fell four votes short and, when the issue went back to the House after the Senate vote, there were 235 votes in favour of overturning the veto against 193. Opinion polls suggest that almost 70 per cent of Americans support ES cell research.
Following the Senate vote, there were press statements welcoming the outcome issued by a number of interested organisations: the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the American Diabetes Association, the Biotechnology Industry Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, among others. A number of Senators and other parties called on Bush not to use his power of veto. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who had campaigned in support of the bill, said that 'the pleas of so many suffering families have finally been heard', adding 'time is short, and life is precious, and I hope this promising research can now move forward'. However, on Wednesday evening, Bush issued the veto, the first since he came to power. 'This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect, so I vetoed it', he said. Privately-funded ES cell research is unaffected by the vote or the veto: it has always been permitted in the US.
Diana DeGette, co-sponsor of the legislation, said that she has 'no doubt' that the position will change 'in 30 months when we have a new president'. DeGette and Mike Castle, her co-sponsor, as well as others, plan to attach elements of the bill to other measures or bring the whole thing back next year. 'I'm energised by this, not quieted', Castle said.
The other two bills that were debated take different approaches to stem cell research - both were passed by the Senate on Tuesday. The first (S 2754), sponsored by Republican Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, requires the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research ways of creating ES cell lines without creating and destroying actual embryos, as well as increasing research into adult stem cells. The other (S 3504 - the Fetal Farming Prohibition Act), sponsored by Senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, bans the use of embryos from 'fetal farms' in research - those that could be created in a non-human uterus or from human pregnancies created specifically for the purposes of research.