The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to reject restrictions President Bush has placed on embryonic stem-cell research. Bush plans to veto the bill, but his restrictions are unlikely to last for long after his presidency.
The candidates running to succeed Bush in 19 months largely endorse federally supported stem-cell research. That support, coupled with the backing of a majority of Americans, means change is almost certain.
"The war is basically won, the policy is going to be updated; it's just a matter of when," said Lawrence Soler, a vice president at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which lobbies for embryonic stem-cell research.
Bush has cast stem-cell research as a moral issue intimately connected to the question of when life begins, a question that echoed throughout the second day of Senate debate. Bush used the only veto of his career to overturn a similar bill last year.
"I believe this will encourage taxpayer money to be spent on the destruction or endangerment of living human embryos," Bush said in a statement.
The conservative groups and religious right that make up Bush's base praised his stand and said legislators must be educated to understand the potential of alternatives. "In two years, we could have such significant breakthroughs this is no longer an issue," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "It becomes harder and harder to argue with science, and the success is in the area of adult stem cells."
But the majority of leading Democratic and Republican presidential candidates support research on embryonic stem cells.
Former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, strongly backs the research, while Democratic hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois co-sponsored the Senate bill that would expand the number of embryonic stem-cell lines eligible for federally funded research.
That bill, known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, or S5, passed 63 to 34, winning the same number of votes as a similar bill last year. Sixty-seven votes are needed to overturn a presidential veto. The House passed its version of the bill in January, 253 to 174, also short of the votes needed to override a veto.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supports expanded funding for embryonic stem-cell research as long as embryos are not intentionally created for research.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican who has few fans among conservatives for his support of abortion rights, has taken a fuzzy position.
His spokeswoman Maria Comella said Giuliani thinks "we need to take advantage of new technology, while at the same time need to be respectful of human life." She refused to provide details.
Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, supported embryonic stem-cell research before 2005, but now he strikes a balance. He supports research with cells that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics, but he opposes federal funding for that work. And like McCain, he opposes the creation of embryos for the purposes of research.
Only Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) opposes almost all embryonic stem-cell research. He led much of the debate on a second stem-cell bill the Senate approved, 70 to 28. Written by conservatives and the White House, it would expand funding for research on dead embryonic cells and other types of stem cells.
The restrictions Bush placed on embryonic stem-cell research limited federal funding to work on stem-cell lines created before August 2001. There are 21 such lines, but advocates say they are contaminated and unusable for research.
The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which came to the floor with 31 bipartisan co-sponsors, would allow funding for embryonic stem-cell research regardless of when the stem cells were created. The stem-cell lines would have to be derived from unwanted and unused embryos donated by in vitro fertilization clinics. Women donating the embryos would have to provide written consent and could not receive a financial reward or other inducement.
The questions of the abortion debate echoed throughout the day as legislators discussed the point at which life begins and control over a woman's body.
Some legislators took to the floor several times to deliver and redeliver their arguments, often with poster-board displays showing levels of research funding in other countries or photos of children who are the product of adopted embryos.
"The question we're debating is, when does life begin?" said Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), as he spoke in support of embryonic research. "Life begins with mom, life begins with the joining of life and spirit."
Brownback asked the same question but came up with a different answer. "Will we sanction the destruction of nascent human life with taxpayer dollars? That is the central question."
Even as he acknowledged that the stem-cell bill would pass, Brownback made an emotional appeal for conservative values. "Why go there if we don't have to? Let's not go there," he said. "This is a turning point for us. Let's be a culture where every life is sacred, the child of a loving God."
Senators arguing for embryonic stem-cell research were equally passionate.
"It is not every day we have the opportunity to vote to heal the sick," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who described herself as a "Christian who supports this research."
Not all legislators who oppose abortion rights stood to oppose embryonic stem-cell research. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah, said that when he first backed such research in 2001, many of his constituents complained, but now most support it.
"Why does a pro-life senator support stem-cell research?" he asked. "Because I do not consider a frozen embryo to be a human life until it's implanted in a woman's uterus. I see it as curing human misery through research as provided through S5."
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Where the candidates stand
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Co-sponsored the 2005 and 2006 Senate bills to expand research, which were vetoed by President Bush. She has called the ethics of stem-cell research "a delicate balance" and has called for tough penalties for those who break research rules.
Barack Obama: Supports expanded access to stem-cell lines for research and co-sponsored the 2005 and 2006 bills. He is "frustrated by the opposition the Senate bill has generated and saddened that we are preventing the advancement of important science."
John Edwards: Wants to expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. In his 2004 presidential campaign, Edwards said if such research is allowed, "people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again."
Rudolph W. Giuliani: Backs easing restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Giuliani believes the nation needs to broaden research technologies while being respectful of human life, a spokeswoman said, but she would offer no details.
John McCain: Wants to expand funding for research on stem-cell lines obtained from discarded human embryos originally created for fertility treatments, but ban the creation of embryos for research. He is against research that uses cloned human embryos.
Mitt Romney: Supported embryonic stem-cell research before 2005, but now opposes research on cloned human embryos and expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. He supports using embryos discarded after fertility treatments.
Source: Los Angeles Times reporting