WASHINGTON -- Both sides in the escalating battle over the controversial federal ban on fetal tissue research have locked horns over President Bush's last-minute order to establish a national tissue bank to store material from ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages for research purposes.
The fight intensified as the House prepared to vote final approval tomorrow for legislation that would overturn the ban, and supporters there appeared close to having enough votes to override an almost certain White House veto.
A two-thirds majority, which is needed to override a veto, is very likely in the Senate, where the legislation originally passed with 87 yes votes.
The provision that would overturn the ban is included in a measure that would reauthorize programs of the National Institutes of Health. If Mr. Bush vetoes the bill, he also will kill numerous NIH programs, including two new ones that would earmark $300 million for breast cancer research and $72 million for prostate cancer research.
Thus far, Congress has failed to override any of the president's 28 vetoes.
The White House, attempting to erode the measure's bipartisan support -- which includes numerous staunch anti-abortion lawmakers --insisted that its proposal will fulfill current medical research needs without resorting to the use of tissue from elective abortions.
Dr. James O. Mason, head of the Public Health Service, defended the president's order as being consistent with Bush's position as "pro-research" and "pro-life."
"President Bush found a wonderful way to get us away from questionable ethics and on the road to good research," he said yesterday.
But medical researchers and others insisted that the plan is unworkable, and will have no practical impact because it is already legal to use such tissue.
"It simply will never work," said Dr. D. Eugene Redmond Jr., of Yale University, who has been conducting fetal transplantation research on Parkinson's disease patients for the past four years using private funds.
Such tissue "is difficult to collect in a safe and timely fashion to preserve the viability of the cells," Dr. Redmond said. "The number of potentially useful miscarriages is so low that it would require a significant number of highly trained specialists scattered in hospitals around the country to collect even a few specimens each year."
Dr. Redmond said his research team has been unable to obtain "a single usable" specimen from either an ectopic pregnancy or a miscarriage since their work began.
But Dr. Mason dismissed the criticism. "I think the average American believes that somehow the moratorium has stopped thousands of people with Parkinson's disease and diabetes from an immediate cure from their disease, and nothing could be further from the truth," he said in a briefing.
The move to establish such a tissue bank is identical to an amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, during the earlier Senate debate on the bill. The amendment was defeated 77-23.