President Bush delighted many conservatives but disappointed medical groups when he vetoed a bill in July that would have expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Well over 100 groups representing patients, researchers, and physicians backed a bill to overturn tight restrictions on federal funding of embryonic research laid down by Bush in August 2001. That decision allowed funding on 77 cell lines already derived at the time, although researchers have since complained that only 20 or so are viable because of contamination and a lack of genetic diversity.
Bush used the first veto of his 5.5-year-old presidency to reject the bill (H.R. 810), despite broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. The House failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
“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,” Bush said in a White House speech, flanked by several “snowflake” children who were adopted while still frozen embryos in fertility clinics.
Bush's move delighted many antiabortion conservatives, who had called on the president to reject the bill.
A handful of states—including California, Massachusetts, and Maryland—have laws funding embryonic stem cell research. Still, advocates of the research warned that the veto would cause the United States to fall behind on a promising therapeutic avenue.
“This research is going to take place. I'd like to see America take a leading role in this,” Lawrence T. Smith, chair of the board of the American Diabetes Association, said in an interview.
The issue split antiabortion lawmakers. Some agreed with Bush that destroying embryos amounts to ending human life, but others, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), concluded that embryos can become human life only if implanted in utero.
Physician lawmakers were also split. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), an internist, accused supporters of overselling the promise of embryonic stem cells to cure degenerative diseases and spinal cord injuries.
“This business about cures being around the corner—they don't have an animal model that shows that embryonic stem cells work and they are safe,” Weldon said on the House floor. He was joined by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), an ob.gyn., Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R-La.), a former surgeon, and Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.), a family physician.
Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.), an otolaryngologist, voted to expand the research. So did Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a cardiac surgeon and presidential hopeful who surprised colleagues last summer when he reversed his support for President Bush and said he'd support overturning research restrictions.
“In all forms of stem cell research, I see today … great promise to heal. Whether it's diabetes, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, or spinal cord injuries, stem cells offer hope for treatment that other lines of research cannot offer,” Sen. Frist said on the Senate floor.
Bush's veto angered some of his political opponents, some of whom questioned whether he or his staff was familiar with the legislation. Bush said he rejected the bill because “American taxpayers would for the first time be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos.”
A decade-old law known as the Dickey Amendment already bans using federal money to destroy human embryos or fetuses. The bill would have used federal funding to research cell lines derived using private money.
“You listen to the president's speech and you wonder who his science teacher was,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).