President Bush on Wednesday vetoed legislation that would have allowed the use of federal funds to support embryonic stem cell research, the second consecutive year he has blocked such a bill.
Proponents say embryonic stem cells -- which can turn into cells for many different kinds of human tissue -- offer the best chance of treating or curing many debilitating or fatal diseases.
But opponents, like Bush, argue that research on the cells, which can be derived from human embryos created during in-vitro fertilization treatments, effectively destroys a human life.
In announcing the veto, Bush said he took heart from studies released this month that suggested it may be possible to grow stem cells from sources other than human embryos.
“Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical -- and it is not the only option before us,” Bush said in remarks in the White House’s ornate East Room after the veto. “Researchers are now developing promising new techniques that offer the potential to produce pluripotent stem cells without having to destroy human life.”
“Pluripotent” stem cells can become any of the three layers of cells from which all organs and tissues develop.
At the same time, Bush issued an executive order to the National Institutes of Health, asking scientists to pursue research on stem cells that “are derived without creating a human embryo for research purposes or destroying, discarding, or subjecting to harm a human embryo or fetus.”
Critics accused the president of using the executive order, which does not need congressional approval, to give the appearance of supporting stem cell research when in fact he has been holding it back.
“Last year, the Republican-controlled House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to open up the hope of stem cell research to the millions of Americans who suffer. That was a proud day,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“Now a year has passed, and our best scientists continue to work with one hand tied behind their back. A year has passed, and countless thousands more Americans have been diagnosed with cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, heart disease and ALS” -- a reference to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said that the president has always advocated ethical research on stem cells and that the executive order will make sure that continues.
“The policy change is that when you’re taking a look at pluripotent stem cell lines, it is no longer limited strictly to embryonic stem cell lines. So that is a change in the law,” Snow said.
The stem cell bill passed both houses of Congress this spring with strong majorities, but overriding the veto would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber. The Senate appears to be one vote shy of the two-thirds mark, and the House is about 35 votes short.
Stem cell research has been a tricky issue for Bush since the first year of his administration, when he made a decision to permit scientists to continue to use several existing strains of embryonic stem cells but denied federal funding that would create new ones.
Opponents of that policy say that research efforts have been hampered by myriad factors, including the limited amount of funding available through private sources and contamination of the existing cell lines.
Wednesday’s veto was only the third Bush has cast. In addition to two stem cell vetoes, the president in May vetoed a war funding bill that included a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.