WASHINGTON – House lawmakers voted to loosen restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (search) Tuesday, despite President Bush's threat to veto the legislation.
In a second vote, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved devoting more funds to the research of stem cells collected from umbilical cord blood — a measure the White House supported. The bill was approved 431-1.
The house approved the embryonic stem cell bill by a 238-194 vote, but that number is short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override the Bush's apparently inevitable veto.
Speaking at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Bush said that grave moral issues are at stake if the federal government agreed to expand embryonic stem cell research.
"I believe America must pursue the tremendous possibilities of science and I believe we can do so while still fostering and encouraging a respect for life in all its stages," Bush said in an East Room event that include 21 "snowflake babies," or children born from "adopted" frozen embryos.
"We must remember that real human lives are involved, both the lives of those with diseases that might find cures from this research and the lives of the embryos that will be destroyed in the process. The children here today are reminders that every human life is a precious gift of matchless value," the president said.
The bill sponsored by Reps. Mike Castle, R-Del., and Diana DeGette, R-Colo., would lift Bush's 2001 ban on new federally funded research on embryonic stem cells, a process that requires the destruction of human embryos.
"This is not an easy vote for many Republicans ... and some Democrats, too, because you have pro-life and other arguments," Castle said before the vote. "There's a lot of tide against them voting for it."
"Congress is unfortunately facing a perceived choice between supporting — on the one hand — children unlucky enough to be born with debilitating diseases, and — on the other — children unlucky enough to be unwanted by the clinic customers who had them created in the first place," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), who has considerable influence among Republican lawmakers, said Tuesday.
"Our decision today — quite literally a matter of life and death — is a necessary and important step in our national conversation about the kind of people we will be in a world of ever more promising — and ever more unnerving — medical technologies," DeLay added.
The other bill, which passed by near universal support, was sponsored by Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Artur Davis, D-Ala.
The measure would provide $79 million in federal funds to increase the amount of umbilical cord blood (search) for stem cell research and treatment and establish a national database for patients looking for matches.
"There are alternatives to destroying embryos" like using umbilical cord blood for research, Claude Allen, a White House advisor on domestic policy, told FOX News on Tuesday. "So we do not need to destroy human life in order to protect human life."
The Bush administration on Tuesday released a statement in support of the Smith-Davis bill (search), saying umbilical cord-blood stem cells, collected from the placenta and umbilical cord after birth without doing harm to mother or child, have been used in the treatment of thousands of patients suffering from more than 60 different diseases, including leukemia, Fanconi anemia, sickle cell disease and thalassemia. Researchers also believe cord-blood stem cells may be useful in the exploration of stem cell therapies for regenerative medicine, reads the statement from the Office of Management and Budget.
DeLay said before the vote that he had no doubts about the passage of the Smith-Davis bill.
"It will pass with bipartisan support because none of its provisions predicate its available funding upon the destruction of human life," the Texas Republican said Tuesday.
Tuesday's debate opened with emotional appeals from survivors of disease who credit stem cell science with saving their lives. Supporters of embryonic stem cell research tried to cast the debate in terms of the possible medical cures that could come from it.
"For America to stand back because of a moral principle and not allow sound scientific research to proceed under the umbrella of the National Institute of Health, I think, is unconscionable," said Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H.
While the embryonic stem cell research bill picked up the 218 votes needed to pass, it fell short of the 290 votes needed to sustain a veto of the 435-member body.
Driving the debate of these bills are deep emotions behind the promise — disputed in some camps — that stem cell research could provide treatment and perhaps cures for diseases as diverse as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and childhood diabetes.
Leading up to the floor action, supporters and opponents of the legislation gathered people with personal experience with stem cell research to tell their stories.
"As you consider the funding options for stem cell research, please remember me," Keone Penn, 18, said at a Capitol Hill news conference. He said he had been stricken with childhood sickle cell anemia and cured after a transplant from umbilical cord blood.
Penn, of Atlanta, said sickle cell anemia caused a stroke when he was 5 years old. Treatment for the disease was so painful that he said he contemplated suicide four years later. Doctors predicted he would not live to adulthood, but because of the transplant, he turns 19 in two weeks.
"If it wasn't for cord blood, I'd probably be dead by now," he said.
Blood saved from newborns' umbilical cords is rich in a type of stem cells that produce blood, the same kind that make up bone-marrow transplants. The Institute of Medicine recently estimated that cord blood could help treat about 11,700 Americans a year with leukemia and other devastating diseases, yet most is routinely discarded.
Castle and DeGette said they expect their bill to soon be considered by the Senate. If it passes both chambers, they said, perhaps the White House would reconsider its opposition. Either way, Castle said, the discussion has inspired "a lot more interest in this issue."
The Castle-DeGette bill deals with embryonic stem cells, which are the building blocks for every tissue in the body. Attempting to harness those stem cells' regenerative powers is in very early research stages, but many scientists believe it has the potential to one day create breakthrough treatments.
But DeLay called the Castle-Degette bill "both divisive and, to put it bluntly, dismissive of the dignity of human life at its embryonic stage."
FOX News' Jim Mills and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.