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Senators approve funding for stem-cell research

WASHINGTON—Senators summoned their family ghosts Tuesday, and for a few moments they almost lived again—relatives who trembled helplessly, slowly lost their minds or withered away from incurable diseases.

Voting 63-37, the Senate gave final approval to expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, which many scientists believe offers the potential for finding cures for Parkinson's, diabetes and other illnesses that afflict millions of Americans.

President Bush says he'll veto the bill Wednesday. It will be his first veto since he took office in 2001. He opposes the research because it involves destroying human embryos, which he considers taking life, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday.

Within hours of Bush's veto, the House of Representatives will vote to override it, but it's certain to fall short of the two-thirds majority needed.

The president will sign one other modest stem-cell bill, which would prevent embryos from being harvested solely to extract stem cells for research. A second such bill, aimed at encouraging research that doesn't destroy embryos, failed to clear the House on Tuesday night because of a procedural obstacle.

Even if the main bill's fate is clear, at least for this year, Tuesday's Senate debate was dramatic, as many Republicans joined Democrats and various celebrities in urging Bush to reconsider, while others stood with the president, saying morality demands no less.

"We will all die," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., noting that Parkinson's felled three of his relatives, including Morris K. Udall, the late Democratic congressman from Arizona and 1976 presidential candidate. "But no one should have to die as they died."

"This is about the value of human life," countered bill opponent Sen. Rick Santorum R-Pa., who said he thinks many scientists lack sufficient moral standards.

Advocates argued that allowing federal money to be spent researching new stem-cell lines from embryos that fertility clinics otherwise would destroy is better understood as offering mercy to the living than as destroying nascent life.

Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., described the pain of losing his mother to Alzheimer's, a brother-in-law to Lou Gehrig's and a grandfather to Parkinson's. He remembered that his grandfather kept working as a butcher even as his fingers shook and the family wondered "if he was going to chop one off."

"I suspect we could go from desk to desk, from member to member, and each of us could tell a personal story from our own family," Carper said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter Tuesday to Bush warning that a veto "would send a disastrous message to limit the role the federal government must play in pursuing the most promising forms of basic scientific research."

"Mr. President," Schwarzenegger wrote, "I urge you not to make the first veto of your presidency one that turns America backwards on the path of scientific progress and limits the promise of medical miracles for generations to come."

Actress Mary Tyler Moore was at the Capitol, cheering a bill she called "pro-life."

Behind the scenes, senators said, former first lady Nancy Reagan made calls urging support for the research.

In a statement released after the vote, she said, "The pleas of so many suffering families have finally been heard. Time is short, and life is precious, and I hope this promising research can now move forward."

In 2001, Bush limited federal support for research to stem cell lines already in existence. But scientists say those lines are contaminated and of limited use, and that the private sector and a handful of states can't do nearly as much research without federal backing.

Religious conservatives opposed to the legislation predicted that adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood would become more promising, but for now scientists say embryonic stem cells are far more versatile.

As for the argument that the embryos come from fertility clinics, Santorum said: "I know people will dismiss that (by reasoning), `Well, they would be discarded anyway.' All I can suggest is that every life, whether it's in a suspended state in an IVF clinic, whether it's standing on the floor of the United States Senate attempting to defend and protect those suspended lives, every life has meaning. Every life deserves protection."

Despite facing a veto, pro-research senators said they were confident that, with Congress' continuing support, Bush's prohibitions ultimately would be lifted, if not under him, than the next president.

"We're going to see increased federal funding both for embryonic and adult stem-cell work," predicted Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who's a physician.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, disagreed, predicting that science soon would find a less controversial way to develop equally promising cell therapies. "I don't think it will be an issue in the future," he said. "I think science is moving way down the road in a big hurry where this will no longer be an issue."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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