More MS news articles for July 2001

Bush 'Agonizing' Over Funding of Embryo Research

Sunday, July 15, 2001; Page A01
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer

President Bush has become much more deeply and emotionally involved than is typical for his young presidency in the vexing decision of whether federal money should be used for embryonic stem cell research, according to lawmakers, aides and others who have discussed the subject with him in recent days.

Using words such as "grappling" and "agonizing," they paint a portrait of a man who has become well-schooled in the subtleties of the science involved and has immersed himself in the moral and ethical issues at stake. In fact, the president has become so absorbed in the subject that he has become almost preoccupied with it -- and been pushed into a period of true angst over what to do, they said.

"He is spending a great deal of personal time thinking and talking about this. He raises it as non sequiturs in other meetings," said a Democratic health care lobbyist who consults regularly with Bush's policy team, and described Bush as "genuinely very, very conflicted."

As Bush canvasses an eclectic mix of politicians, doctors, religious scholars and, in at least one instance, members of his economic team, he is clearly searching for some kind of compromise that not only takes into account the strong political crosscurrents at play, but also fits his own values.

Bush's struggle over stem cells is unusual for a politician who tends to delegate to subordinates and then make decisions quickly without much apparent introspection. While revealing a more reflective side, Bush's contemplative approach in this case may have exposed him to more political problems by allowing pressure to build from all sides, observers said.

Nevertheless, at the moment, the president seems most inclined to continue to go slow. Despite promises that a decision would be made in late June or early July, several advisers now say they do not expect Bush to make up his mind until after his July 23 visit with Pope John Paul II.

"August recess might not be a bad time," said one of Bush's domestic policy advisers, only half joking about a desire to announce the decision when lawmakers and much of the country are on vacation.

Go slow was the message that Bush heard Tuesday night, when he and senior adviser Karl Rove met at the White House to discuss the issue with two leading bioethicists -- Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center in upstate New York and Leon Kass of the University of Chicago.

Both ethicists steered Bush toward taking a cautious route: for now, only funding research on stem cells obtained from adults. While considered inferior by many scientists, adults cells may turn out to be as useful as those obtained from embryos without posing the problem of having to destroy embryos to get them, they argued.

"It offends a lot of people," Callahan said, recounting the case he made against the research. "Can't we slow this down?"

Twenty-four hours later, at an unrelated meeting, the session with Kass and Callahan -- and the desperate quest for a compromise -- was still weighing on Bush's mind. "I just heard from some bioethicists who gave me a lot to think about," the president said, abruptly changing the topic from managed care legislation to stem cell research, according to one participant. "It's a tough decision."

At the heart of Bush's consternation is promising, but controversial, research on embryos that in most instances would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics. Many scientists say that because embryonic stem cells have the ability to transform into virtually any kind of tissue, they hold hope for treating illnesses such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer. Opponents of the research, however, say it is unethical to destroy potential life to obtain the cells.

In recent days, the scientific picture has become further complicated by reports that a lab in Virginia had created human embryos for the express purpose of extracting stem cells from them, and that a Massachusetts biotechnology company was trying to clone human embryos to obtain the cells.

The breathtaking speed at which the science is moving dominated much of Tuesday's conversation, Callahan said. And it prompted Bush to scribble questions in the margins of newspaper articles reporting the latest developments, according to two aides.

Bush knows the science is racing forward, with or without federal funding, Callahan said. "That's why he feels it would be so wonderful if we could find a compromise."

What is most noteworthy, said the people who spoke to Bush, is how consumed he has become with the ethical ramifications of what was supposed to be quick, quiet delivery on a campaign pledge to protect life and oppose efforts to destroy human embryos.

"He's basically heard all 87 sides of this and is confronting a very fundamental, moral problem," said Callahan, who said he was impressed with Bush's knowledge on the issue. "He really worries about this -- that's why he's taking so long."

Callahan, a Democrat who did not vote for Bush, told the president embryonic stem cell research has been "oversold" in much the same way he believes fetal tissue research was "hyped" as a potential cure for Parkinson's 10 years ago.

Kass, a well-known conservative thinker who did not want to discuss the private meeting, reportedly reiterated arguments he has made before two congressional panels that stem cells that can be obtained from adults may offer an equally promising alternative to embryonic cells.

In two conversations with Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), Bush has reflected on the unexpected complexities of the issue. "The breadth and depth of the controversy was greater than he had understood," said Johnson, who supports the research. More than once, Johnson said Bush told her: " 'I'm getting a lot of input on this.' "

On a flight aboard Air Force One, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Bush challenged him directly on the moral implications of using federal money to conduct the research.

"He expressed real concern about the moral issues, the potential for life in an embryo," said Specter, another proponent of the research. "He spoke of his concern for using taxpayers' money where there is such a deep division in the country and the moral issue is so profound."

Several participants in Wednesday's meeting on the Patients Bill of Rights said they were startled when Bush raised stem cells with doctors who specialize in areas such as anesthesiology and orthopedics.

"He did surprise us," said I. Howard Fine, president of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery. "It was clear he was considering all the aspects. Everybody appreciated what a difficult decision this is for him."

For months, both sides have ferociously pressed their case. Television commercials and news conferences featuring chronically ill children run parallel to celebrity-studded congressional hearings. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson is one of several antiabortion Republicans urging Bush to pursue the research. On the other side, Catholic Church officials and leaders of prominent antiabortion groups, two of Bush's most valuable constituencies, are lobbying aggressively against a procedure they describe as akin to abortion.

As he has done on Medicare reform, Bush is relying heavily on the counsel of Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and former heart surgeon. The pair talk often and some advisers speculate that Bush is waiting for Frist to take the lead. Frist's spokeswoman said the senator was not ready to discuss his views.

Yet that is standard fare in the Washington world of lobbying. Advisers say it is the intensely personal nature of this issue, coupled with the complex ethical dimensions, that have thrust Bush into this unfamiliar role of public agonizing.

Like millions of Americans, Bush and his closest aides have direct experience with some of the debilitating illnesses scientists hope to treat or cure through stem cell advances. The president lost a sister, Robin, to leukemia at age 3. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.'s parents suffered from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Nancy Reagan, who is watching her husband deteriorate from Alzheimer's, has written in favor of the research.

One GOP strategist saw political benefit in Bush's uncharacteristically drawn-out decision-making.

"The first wave of stories were all about Karl Rove worrying over the politics," said this Republican. "The advantage here in showing some sense of agony is it shows his patience for the complexity of it."

Conservative commentator William Kristol, who does not hesitate to criticize the White House, said he believes administration aides were wrong to expect the typical speedy decision. "I gather Bush is truly grappling with this as a moral issue," he said.

Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company