House Prepares for Vote on Stem-Cell Research

The House takes up the controversial subject of embryonic stem-cell research. Members are expected to approve a bill that would expand federal funding for research using cells from human embryos, a move that could prompt President Bush's first veto.

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Members of the House of Representatives are expected to vote today on a bill that would expand federal funding of research on stem cells derived from human embryos. It appears to have enough votes to pass, even though the bill is opposed by President Bush and House Republican leaders. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Lawmakers pushing the bill say that cells taken from human embryos show promise for treating or curing a wide variety of ailments from diabetes to Parkinson's disease to spinal cord injuries. Delaware Republican Michael Castle is the measure's lead sponsor.

Representative MICHAEL CASTLE (Republican, Delaware): I would encourage anyone within the sound of my voice to talk to researchers in this area. They feel there's more hope here than there is in anything else that possibly is extant out there in terms of medical research in the United States of America.

ROVNER: But opponents say the measure crosses a moral line by allowing embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures to be destroyed in order to obtain the stem cells. President Bush made his declaration on the bill last Friday.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I have made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life is--I'm against that, and, therefore, if the bill does that, I will veto it.

ROVNER: House Republican leaders are giving lawmakers a second bill to vote for. They're sensitive to anti-abortion groups who vehemently oppose Congressman Castle's bill. The second bill would authorize additional funding for research using stem cells not taken from embryos. Its lead sponsor is New Jersey Republican Christopher Smith.

Representative CHRISTOPHER SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): Amazingly, we are on the threshold of systematically turning medical waste, umbilical cords and placentas, into medical miracles for huge numbers of very sick and terminally ill patients who suffer from such maladies as leukemia and sickle cell anemia.

ROVNER: Smith says his bill can help people without controversy.

Rep. SMITH: The key is: How do we cure patients? How do we do it in an ethical manner? I would argue, and perhaps there might even be some people here who think otherwise, that the only way to do it is through an ethical way that does not kill embryos.

ROVNER: But backers of the embryonic stem cell bill say it is ethical because it only authorizes the use of embryos that would otherwise be discarded. Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette is the measure's lead co-sponsor. She says she was at a dinner this weekend with the family of two young boys with juvenile diabetes.

Representative DIANA DeGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): I ask people this question: Which would you rather have, a road that could lead to a cure for those two little boys, or discarding of those embryos? The answer, both scientifically and morally, is clear. We need to promote this very important research.

ROVNER: Castle and his backers say they plan to vote for both bills. Indeed, Smith's lead co-sponsor, Alabama Democrat Artur Davis, says he plans to vote for both bills, too, but the cord blood stem cell bill, says Castle, shouldn't be seen as a substitute for the broader bill to facilitate research with embryonic cells.

Rep. CASTLE: We believe that's a good way to help people as well, but it's very limited. Of the 15 diseases that kill people, only one of them can be impacted positively by adult stem cells. It's just a much, much smaller universe than embryonic stem cells would be.

ROVNER: New Hampshire Republican Charlie Bass, who supports the embryonic stem cell measure, told reporters it's clear to him why the leaders are bringing up the cord blood stem cell bill at the same time.

Representative CHARLIE BASS (Republican, New Hampshire): What it does is it gives members of Congress who did not intend to vote for the Castle-DeGette bill a reason to send out a press release at the end of the day saying that he or she voted for stem cell research. I know you guys will see through that pretty quickly and I think the general public will.

ROVNER: Castle and DeGette say they're confident their bill will pass despite a vigorous campaign by the opposition that featured children who were born because their parents adopted leftover embryos from other couples. DeGette says she's also heard the Senate has the 60 votes needed to overcome a potential filibuster of the bill in that chamber. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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