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Thursday, July 20, 2006 - Page updated at 02:02 PM

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Bush's first veto kills extra funds for embryonic stem-cell work

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Bush issued the first veto of his five-year-old administration Wednesday, rejecting Congress' bid to lift funding restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.

Within hours of his announcement, the House, as expected, fell short in a bid to override the veto.

At a White House ceremony where Bush was flanked by children produced from what he called adopted frozen embryos, he said taxpayers should not support research on surplus embryos at fertility clinics, even if they offer possible medical breakthroughs and are headed for disposal.

The vetoed bill "would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others," the president said, as babies softly cooed and cried behind him. "It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect."

Each child on the stage, he said, "began his or her life as a frozen embryo that was created for in-vitro fertilization but remained unused after the fertility treatments were complete. ... These boys and girls are not spare parts."

The House's failed override attempt extinguished the issue as a legislative matter this year, but not as a political one. Democrats said voters will penalize Republicans for the demise of a popular bill and predicted the issue could trigger the defeat of Bush allies such as Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who faces a tough re-election battle.

"Those families who wake up every morning to face another day with a deadly disease or a disability will not forget this decision by the president to stand in the way of sound science and medical research," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

"Snowflakes"


Over the past two decades, since the first "test-tube baby" was born, an estimated 400,000 frozen embryos have accumulated in more than 400 U.S. fertility clinics.

Nightlight Christian Adoptions connects biological parents of those so-called "snowflake" embryos with other families trying to conceive; 110 children have been born so far, and an additional 20 are due by February.

The Associated Press

Some conservative Republicans also criticized the veto.

"I am pro-life, but I disagree with the president's decision," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a heart surgeon who is weighing a 2008 presidential run. "Given the potential of this research and the limitations of the existing [embryonic stem-cell] lines eligible for federally funded research, I think additional lines should be made available."

The Republican-controlled House and Senate passed the stem-cell legislation by comfortable margins, but not with the two-thirds majorities required to override a veto.

The House voted 235-193 Wednesday to override Bush, falling 51 votes short of the threshold and negating the need for a Senate override attempt.

Bush did sign a bill, unanimously passed by Congress this week, to ban the creation of human fetuses for the sole purpose of harvesting organs.

But the House thwarted prompt passage of another bill he had hoped to sign Wednesday. It would have promoted efforts to conduct stem-cell research without destroying embryos.

Bush has made 141 veto threats while in office, and the Republicans controlling Congress typically respond by changing bills to his liking. His single veto is a departure from the practices of other recent presidents. Bill Clinton had 37, Bush's father had 44 and Ronald Reagan had 78.

Bush drew a sharp line on stem cells during a televised address Aug. 9, 2001, banning federal funding for research using embryonic stem-cell colonies created after that date.

Public sentiment increasingly has moved away from him as former first lady Nancy Reagan and the late actor Christopher Reeve, among others, touted the potential that embryonic stem cells offer in treating Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, spinal-cord injuries and other conditions.

Unlike adult stem cells, embryonic cells can replicate themselves and turn into any human tissue.

Officials say about 400,000 frozen embryos are stored at fertility clinics in this country. The vast majority await disposal because the couples that produced them have completed their pursuit of children and do not want another person raising their biological child.

Bush praised those who "adopt" such embryos, implant them in a woman's womb and bring them to term.

But others said there will be few such adoptions because most couples seeking an in-vitro child want a genetic connection by contributing the sperm and/or egg.

"Even with federal funding available to encourage adoption, these 400,000 embryos will either be used for scientific research or thrown away," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a backer of the bill, said this week.

Bush and his allies contend frozen embryos are tantamount to humans and therefore are no more appropriate for medical research than are death-row inmates.

"If this bill were to become law," Bush said Wednesday, "American taxpayers would for the first time in our history be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos."

Others reject that analysis, saying it would make killers of every couple that produces an ultimately unused embryo in pursuit of a baby, and every employee and official who allows fertility clinics to produce and store such embryos.

"If that's murder, how come the president allows that to continue?" said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "Where is his outrage?"

Harkin called the veto "a shameful display of cruelty, hypocrisy and ignorance."

Chuck Murry, a stem-cell researcher and co-director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Washington, said, "It's frustrating, because it would have opened a lot of doors to us."

Murry said he has been able to make significant progress even within the limits of the so-called "presidential" lines established in 2001.

He and colleagues have improved their ability to coax stem cells to differentiate into heart tissue and to get new tissue to implant in rats. He said the use of other lines of cells, or techniques to get them, would enable him to do further experiments on the physiology of heart disease in a lab dish.

Murry said he hopes to raise $10 million in private money to further the work.

Seattle Times business reporter Luke Timmerman contributed to this report. Background on vetoes was provided by The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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