WASHINGTON Senate advocates of stem cell research that destroys human embryos are trying a new tactic in their ongoing effort to gain federal funding for such experimentation.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved as part of a spending bill a measure that would grant government money for studies of stem cell lines derived from embryos over nearly the last six years. The provision would dramatically weaken the current policy instituted by President Bush in August 2001. Bush's order permits federal funding only on embryonic stem cell lines in existence before his announcement.
If the legislation were to become law, research on stem cells from embryos destroyed in private work between August 9, 2001, and June 15 of this year could receive federal grants for the first time.
Passage appears highly unlikely, however. The full Senate has yet to vote on it, and the overall bill would have to be agreed to by the House. Also, Bush has promised to veto any bill that "weakens current Federal policies and laws on abortion, or that encourages the destruction of human life at any stage." Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the days-old human beings.
The Senate panel's action came June 21, a day after the president vetoed another measure that would have undermined his policy. Bush rejected the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act for the second time in less than a year. The bill would have provided funds for research using stem cells procured from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. He also announced at a White House ceremony he had signed an executive order to encourage the government's attempts to underwrite ethical stem cell studies.
The Appropriations Committee approved the date-change language as part of a spending bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Committee members voted 26-3 for the overall bill.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, chief promoter of the new language, told the Des Moines Register he is "trying every way I can to reach a compromise with the president, but he won't compromise at all."
"All we're going to do is update his policy," Harkin said. "It's not a perfect solution, but it will advance the science until we get a president in who will take the shackles off our scientists."
Harkin's proposal to move the deadline forward nearly six years is "not really a compromise," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "It's just more grandstanding by the Democratic leadership."
If Congress were to move the August 2001 cut-off for stem cell funds to this year, ESCR proponents could expect the legislature to move the deadline every year, Johnson said.
ESCR supporters still hope to overcome the president's June 20 veto, but they don't have the votes for an override, which requires a two-thirds majority.
The Senate was much closer than the House to the two-thirds majority when it voted 63-34 for the measure, S. 5, in April. The House approved the measure June 7 with a 247-176 roll call, leaving it 35 votes short of the target for an override.
Stem cells are the body's master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.
Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow has nearly universal support. Such research has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.
There is no federal ban on the practice of ESCR, only on its public funding. The U.S. government provides grants for non-embryonic research, which does not harm donors.