Stem cell veto could become a campaign issue

Bush's first veto
Surrounded by "snowflake families," families that adopted frozen embryos, President George W. Bush spoke about stem cell research policy before vetoing a bill that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research say it has the pontential promise to cure many diseases like Parkinson's disease, cancer and Alzheimer's. But in order to get the cells, a days-old embryo has to be destroyed.

President Bush used his veto pen for the first time in his presidency, saying he believes destroying those embryos is immoral.

That disappoints the University of Minnesota's Dan Kaufman, who does embryonic stem cell research at the U's Stem Cell Institute. He says embryonic stem cells are promising because they can grow into any kind of cell.

The hope is that one day, doctors can plant the cells into the heart to prevent heart disease or into the blood to prevent leukemia.

It's part of a theme that I think the Klobuchar people will be pushing, which is that Mark Kennedy is a Bush clone and doesn't represent popular opinion.

Kaufman says he's worried there's not enough federal money or stem cells currently available to do the the necessary research.

"With this veto, it pretty much keeps us at the current state of affairs, which is pretty marginal compared with what we would want to be doing and what people in other countries are able to do, as far as studying new lines of embryonic stem cells," Kaufman says.

Kaufman says those new lines are needed, because the older lines were created using old technology and outdated methods. The U of M and other research institutions can use federal funding to do research on embryonic stem cells created before 2001. They can't use public funding for research done on any lines created after that time period.

That's OK with Chris Leifeld, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which opposes embryonic stem cell research. Leifeld says he's pleased that President Bush stood firm and vetoed the bill.

Leifeld says other research methods, including adult stem cells taken from bone marrow and the study of stems cells taken from umbilical cord blood, are just as promising.

"Embryos are human life. And to destroy those embryos, to destroy human life for any purpose, is wrong. And, again there are other opportunities out there, adult stem cells and other approaches that can hopefully solve the many medical challenges we face, but without destroying human life," says Leifeld.

While the issue over embryonic stem calls cuts across party lines, Democrats are trying to make it an issue in the midterm elections. That's because polling suggests a majority of Americans support the research.

Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who is running for Minnesota's open U.S. Senate seat, criticized her Republican opponent, Mark Kennedy, for not supporting the research. She says his vote, and the President's veto, are tying the hands of researchers in Minnesota.

"This is the home of the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, and we always have been on the cutting edge of new frontiers. Whether it's pacemakers or Post-It Notes, we've been there," says Klobuchar. "And stem cell research is the new frontier for research for cures."

For his part, Kennedy says he thinks the current system in place is adequate. Kennedy, who currently represents Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, voted against the bill vetoed by the president. He says he wants to make sure that scientists are conducting embryonic stem cell research without destroying life.

"I think we really need to focus on how we can create cures for diseases in a way that doesn't have to create as much controversy," says Kennedy. "We've doubled the NIH funding since I've been there. You look at all of the breaktrhoughs that have been going on, they have been with adult stem cells and cord blood stem cells, and we need to continue to push in that direction."

While Kennedy may be bucking majority opinion on the issue, Carlton College political science professor Steven Schier says he doesn't think Kennedy's vote will be a factor in November. He says voters will have other, more important issues on their minds.

Schier says, however, the vote may help Klobuchar's efforts to link Kennedy to an unpopular president.

"It's part of a theme that I think the Klobuchar people will be pushing, which is that Mark Kennedy is a Bush clone and doesn't represent popular opinion," Schier says.

Since there aren't enough votes in either the House or Senate to override the president's veto, it's likely either Kennedy or Klobuchar will have the chance to vote on what's certain to be an ongoing issue in Washington.