Legislators in the US House of Representatives have voted 253-174 in favour of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 (H.R. 3), a revived version of the legislation vetoed by President George W. Bush last July.

An easy passage in the House had been expected but cross-party support for the bill – 37 Republicans voted for it alongside Democrats – still fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override an almost certain presidential veto if the proposed legislation reaches President Bush’s desk.

In the Senate, however, which is expected to vote on parallel legislation (S.5) in February, the Democrats claim already to be one vote short of a veto-buster. And the political complexion of Congress, with the Democrats now controlling both chambers, is very different from last summer. Supporters of the bill are hoping this will lever President Bush into a compromise.

For the moment, there is no sign of the White House giving way on the moral objections that severely restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research under an executive order passed by President Bush in August 2001. The US administration made its position clear in a report published on the eve of the House vote by the White House Domestic Policy Council. This reiterates President Bush’s view that embryonic stem cell research is unethical as it involves destroying “humans in their earliest developmental stage”.

Arguments raised for alternative approaches

The report, Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life, also argues for alternative approaches to stem cell research that do not present the moral dilemmas associated with embryonic cells. These include use of adult stem cells, ‘reprogramming’ adult stem cells to function like embryonic cells, and harvesting stem cells from amniotic fluid in the womb.

This last technique, reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology earlier this month, has provided ammunition for ethical opponents of embryonic stem cell research – although the lead author of the study insists it should be treated as a complement to, not a replacement for, research on embryonic cells.

On top of this comes talk of the White House issuing a new executive order on stem cell research. Supporters of embryonic research do not expect any such initiative to go as far as reversing the 2001 order, which limited government funding to research using the 22 or so embryonic stem cell lines then available for study. By Peter Mansell