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US parliament to vote on stem cell research bills
Updated: 2005-05-24 18:26

WASHINGTON - Two bills that would loosen restrictions on stem cell research take center stage in the House, with disease victims pleading for help and President Bush vowing to veto legislation he says would let science destroy life to save life.

"This is not an easy vote for many Republicans ... and some Democrats, too, because you have pro-life and other arguments," said the sponsor of the more controversial bill, Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. "There's a lot of tide against them voting for it."

Before voting takes place Tuesday, Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas was to speak. Like Bush, DeLay, who is known for enforcing discipline on Republican ranks, is opposed to the bill by Castle and Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

The Castle-DeGette bill would lift Bush's 2001 ban on new federally funded research on embryonic stem cells, a process that requires the destruction of human embryos.

Another bill sponsored by Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Artur Davis, D-Ala., has wide bipartisan support and backing from Bush. It would provide $79 million in federal money to increase the amount of umbilical cord blood for stem cell research and treatment and establish a national database for patients looking for matches.

Many lawmakers said they planned to vote for both stem cell research bills Tuesday.

Decrying science that destroys life to prolong other life, Bush last week promised to veto the Castle-DeGette bill, and some lawmakers were taking note.

The sponsors, who have been counting votes for weeks, predicted the bill would garner the 218 votes needed for passage but fall short of the 290 votes needed to sustain a veto.

The votes of about 20 members of both parties still were up for grabs, Castle said.

Driving the debate over these bills is deep emotion 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.

A day ahead of 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. 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.

On Tuesday, dozens of parents of babies they adopted as embryos were expected to appear on Capitol Hill and in the Rose Garden with Bush to oppose the Castle-DeGette bill. They particularly object to its premise that embryonic stem cell research makes use of fertilized eggs that would otherwise be 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."

"And that's not going to go away," added Rep. Lois Capps (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., another co-sponsor.

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.

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