The US Senate may soon be due to vote on a bill to expand the availability of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced last week that he will schedule a vote sometime this month on the bill - known as the Stem CellResearch Enhancement Act of 2005 (HR 810) - alongside two other bills dealing with issues in ES cell research. A whole day is likely to be set aside for the debate, which will be agreed between Frist and the Minority Leader, Harry Reid. No amendments will be allowed to be made to any of the bills before they are voted upon and all will require 60 of the 100 possible Senate votes - a 'supermajority' - to pass.
Bill HR 810 was passed by the House of Representatives last May, but has been stalled in the Senate since that time. The bill - which would allow federal funds to be used for research on ES cells derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments and voluntarily donated by patients - was passed in the House by 238 votes to 194. According to US news sources, most recent polls have shown that about 70 per cent of the American public support the bill. In May, former first lady Nancy Reagan reiterated her support for it and has pushed for the bill to reach the floor of the Senate for debate. A vote in favour of the bill would see the Senate going against policy put in place by President George Bush in 2001. Bush, who opposes any research that would involve the destruction of human embryos, announced on 9 August 2001 that no federal funds would be available for researchers working on human ES cells created after that date. US scientists have since complained that this policy restricts their research and leaves only less effective ES cell lines for them to work with, as ES cells created before that date were created using mouse 'feeder' cells.
However, soon after bill HR 810 was passed by the House of Representatives, Bush pledged to veto any federal legislation that would relax the policy on ES cell research conducted by federally funded researchers. To override such a Presidential veto, the bill will need to have been passed with a two-thirds majority in both chambers - something it did not reach in the House. Last May, Senator Arlen Specter said that he was confident that the necessary two-thirds majority is achievable in the Senate. But last week, a White House spokesman said that the position is unchanged as the White House opposes the destruction of human embryos for research. President Bush 'doesn't believe we're forced to choose between science and ethics' said the spokesman.
One of the other bills (S 2754), which is sponsored by Republican Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, takes a different approach. It would require 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. However, alongside this provision is another that states that whatever research the NIH undertakes, it should not affect any existing regulations on ES cells or cloning. The NIH says, however, that it does not require legislation in order to undertake this research. The third bill (S 3504), sponsored by Senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, would ban 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.
When confirming that he was willing to schedule the debate, Frist told the Senate that 'I am pro-life' and 'I personally believe human life begins at conception'. However, he added that 'it isn't just about faith, it's a matter of science' and 'stem cells offer a hope for treatment that other lines of research simply haven't offered'. Frist, a Republican and a doctor, has previously been known to support Bush's policy and is anti-abortion - he announced his changed position on ES cell research last August. Harry Reid described the agreement to consider the three bills together as 'not ideal' but added that 'we'll take what we can get'. The decision to schedule the debate 'marks an important step forward in our work to open the door to stem cell research'.