Media General News Service

Cue the cute. For the photo op announcing his first veto, President Bush surrounded himself with adorable babies. The scene in the East Room last week tugged at heartstrings, but it muddled public policy.

The pictures told one story: It’s possible for a surplus frozen embryo to be "adopted," implanted in a woman’s womb and brought to term.

"These boys and girls are not spare parts," Bush said. "They remind us of what is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of research," Bush said. "And they remind us that in our zeal for new treatments and cures, America must never abandon our fundamental morals."

The pictures didn’t tell the whole story. The photo op implied that the president had stopped the destruction of human embryos. He did not.

The effect of the veto _ which the House lacked the votes to override _ was to keep the status quo, which means the federal government still will not pay to use leftover human embryos to create new stem cell lines. The lack of new federally funded lines will slow embryonic stem cell research but not end it.

Five years ago, when Bush announced the policy, he said there were more than 60 existing embryonic stem cell lines. Over time, many of those have not proved viable, and there are now 21 lines available for federal funding, the White House said.

Pharmaceutical companies and several states are aggressively pursuing embryonic stem cell research. California plans to spend $3 billion over a decade on stem cell research. New Jersey has allocated $150 million for a stem cell research center. Connecticut wants to get in on the biotech game with $100 million.

In comparison, the federal government’s funding of embryonic stem cell research chugs along at a $38 million this year and an estimated $39 million in 2007.

One can only imagine what a Bill Gates could do to jump-start such research.

This is one of those times when who is president matters.

Every four years during the presidential election season, we hear the same refrain: The candidates are Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Not a nickel’s worth of difference between the two parties.

But this issue, along with appointments to the Supreme Court, highlights the importance of who’s in the Oval Office.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Bush vetoed the measure. He was delivering on a campaign promise. "I oppose federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying living human embryos," he said in the 2000 campaign.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said, "The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research it’s inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder. He’s one of them."

Democrats plan to use the veto in the fall elections and also in 2008.

Left out of Bush’s photo op were the millions of Americans with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, juvenile diabetes, some cancers and other conditions for which embryonic stem cell research holds promise.

While adult stem cells are being used for research, scientists say the potential for cells that are only a few days old is greater because they can develop into almost any kind of human tissue.

Not to use surplus embryos for research, with the consent of the donors, is immoral, research proponents say.

Fertility clinics routinely create more human embryos than couples need for their family. Despite federal adoption aid, it’s still exceedingly rare for a couple that has undergone fertility treatments and had their family to want someone else to bear their biological child.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a proponent of embryonic stem cell research, has noted that an estimated 400,000 surplus embryos are stored in clinic freezers around the country, and only 128 of these adoptions have occurred. Most surplus embryos are discarded.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who may run for president in 2008, also favors the creation of new stem cell lines with federal funds.

Frist, a surgeon who opposes abortion rights, said the potential of embryonic stem cell research was too great not to open new lines for research.

Polls show a majority of Americans favor using leftover embryos for research. The question is whether voters will be swayed by cute baby pictures.

(Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service. E-mail mmercer(at)