President Bush vowed Friday to veto bipartisan legislation that would ease restrictions on embryonic stem cell research and expressed deep concern about human cloning research in South Korea. It would be the first veto of his presidency.
The veto threat sets up a potential showdown between the president and the House of Representatives, which could vote as early as next week on a stem cell bill. The bill would permit federal funding for research on stem cells taken from days-old embryos stored in freezers at fertility clinics.
The more than two-dozen renegade House Republicans, who intend to vote for opening stem cell research on embryos that would otherwise be discarded, are led by Delaware Republican Mike Castle. He argues that the use of unwanted embryos should be morally acceptable, CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports, even to those opposed to abortion.
"These embryos are going to be disposed of anyhow and the question is how," Castle said. "Do you just throw it away or do you allow the improvement in health care for other people?"
The political and ethical questions surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells to find new cures for disease can be as perplexing as the science itself. Mr. Bush underscored his firm stance Friday.
But Mr. Bush condemned stem cell research advances in South Korea and said he worried about living in a world in which cloning was condoned. He also pledged to veto any legislation that loosened restrictions on using federal money to do research that involved creating life only to destroy it.
"I'm very concerned about cloning," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office. "I worry about a world in which cloning becomes acceptable."
"I made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money to promote science which destroys life in order to save life is — I'm against that. And therefore, if the bill does that, I will veto it."
The president's comments were aimed at putting the brakes on a bill gaining momentum on Capitol Hill.
But Mr. Bush may be treading into dangerous territory. CBS News Correspondent Gloria Borger reports that the most recent polls show that the majority of Republicans support federal funding for stem cell research.
The breakaway Republicans have even funded an ad, which touts the medical potential of embryonic research, Andrews reports. And they have the clout to force a vote, now scheduled for Tuesday.
Facing this reality, the President threatened a veto. But week's vote is a, not of party allegiance, reports CBS Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch.
However, White House representatives say they think they have the votes to sustain the presidential veto.
That bill would initially lift Bush's ban on using federal dollars to do research on embryonic stem cell lines developed after August 2001. The president's veto threat drew immediate reaction from sponsors of the bipartisan bill, Reps. Castle and Diana DeGette, D-Colo.
Castle said the legislation would not allow the cloning of embryos or embryo destruction. Instead, it would let government-funded researchers work with stem cells culled from embryos left over from fertility treatments.
"The bottom line is when a couple has decided to discard their excess embryos, they are either going to be discarded as medical waste or they can be donated for research," Castle said.
DeGette protested, too. "It's disappointing that the president would threaten to use his first veto on a bill that holds promise for cures to diseases that affect millions of Americans," DeGette said. "Support for expanding federal stem cell research in an ethical manner remains strong in Congress."
The other big issue on Capitol Hill is coming to a head Tuesday, as a senator says he'll call for a judicial vote and prompt the filibuster showdown that's been eating up headlines for weeks.
Politics is competitive, and not only is the filibuster showdown contentious on the Hill, but pressure to match up internationally is rising, reports Andrews. This weeks astonishing breakthrough in Korea, where researchers virtually perfected techniques for taking stem cells from human clones, adds to the pressure. And to research scientists, this discovery — in a country not debating moral issues — puts America farther behind.
Stem cells are building blocks that give rise to every tissue in the body. Supporters of embryo stem cell research, including former first lady Nancy Reagan, say it could lead to cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other degenerative brain and nerve diseases.
Bush supports research on adult stem cells, but placed a ban on using federal money to do research on the embryonic stem cells created after August 2001. These stem cells are extracted from days-old embryos, which are destroyed in the process. Bush and some religious and conservative groups who believe life begins at conception don't think tax money should be used to finance such research.
House Republicans are supporting an alternative bill that encourages stem cell research that uses blood from umbilical cords. Extracting stem cells from cord blood does not require the destruction of an embryo.
White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy said the White House was looking favorably at that bill, too, but he stopped short of endorsing the legislation. Researchers, however, point out that stem cells created from the blood of umbilical cords grow into fewer types of tissues and it's unclear whether they will be as flexible in research as the younger, embryonic ones.
In the Senate, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is undergoing chemotherapy in his battle against Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph system, is pushing stem cell legislation with Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a conservative Republican, and Dianne Feinstein of California, a moderate Democrat. The three said their bill would make reproductive cloning, to produce a baby, a crime punishable by up to 10 years. But they want to allow for cloning for the purpose of obtaining stem cells to be used in treating disease.
Amid the controversy in Washington, Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University announced on Thursday that he again had successfully cloned human embryos — this time extracting stem cells from embryos created using the DNA of sick and injured patients. It was the second time in a little more than a year that Hwang had successfully cloned.
Other governments see the promise of stem cell research and are poised to take advantage of it, said Dr. Janet Rowley of the University of Chicago, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics and co-author of recent national ethics guidelines for stem-cell research.
"We in the United States, again because of ideology, are sitting back and watching," she said, adding that she hoped the South Korean work would pressure Congress to take a "more responsible position on federal support for the use and investigation of human embryonic stem cell lines."
Bush began Friday at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast where he urged people to "pray that America uses the gift of freedom to build a culture of life." He said of the late Pope John Paul II, "The best way to honor this great champion of human freedom is to continue to build a culture of life where the strong protect the weak."