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Legislative Activity and Stem Cell Research

A group of men in suits stand around President George W. Bush as he sits and smiles at a podium labeled Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005
President George W. Bush smiles as he signs into law H.R. 2520, the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005. Photo:, Paul Morse

Federal funding for stem cell research has remained a much-contested topic in the U.S. since researchers first isolated human embryonic stem cells in the late 1990s. In August 2000, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) first issued guidelines that allowed federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, supported by then-President Clinton. But when the Bush administration took office months later, it requested a review of NIH funding guidelines and put a hold to limit federal funding for stem cell research.

In August 2001, President George W. Bush enacted a ban on federal funding of research that created new embryonic stem cell lines from fertilized embryos. Funding would be limited to a few dozen lines of stem cells that were in existence at the time. Many of these approved stem cell lines were later determined to contain contaminations and mutations that made them unsuitable for research.

Four years later, Congress passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005. The act would have provided support for research using excess human embryos from fertility clinics, donated with written informed consent and without financial inducements. In 2006, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act became the first legislation vetoed by President Bush.

The following year, Congress approved the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, a bipartisan bill with essentially the same provisions as the 2005 bill. The bill was co-sponsored by both Republican and Democrat members of Congress and had received a final approval vote of 247 to 176 in the House and 63 to 34 in the Senate. Five days later, President Bush again vetoed the bill. After his veto, Bush also issued an executive order encouraging government agencies to support research that creates useful stem cells without destroying embryos.

State legislators, however, have been able to approve funding for stem cell research more easily. In 2004, New Jersey legislators passed a state budget approving 9.5 million dollars for the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, becoming the first state to fund embryonic stem cell research. Soon afterwards, California approved the spending of three billion dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research—in response to the 2001 federal funding ban. Other states that have since passed legislation funding and easing limits on stem cell research include Illinois, Maryland, Missouri and Iowa.

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