More MS news articles for July 2001

Pope, Bush Discuss Embryo Research

Monday, July 23, 2001 11:25 a.m. EDT
By VICTOR L. SIMPSON Associated Press Writer

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (AP) - Pope John Paul II urged President Bush to bar using human embryos for medical research, saying Monday that America has a moral responsibility to reject actions that "devalue and violate human life."

Bush said later that he was not surprised by the pope's admonition and will take it into consideration as he makes his decision on whether to allow federal funding for such research.

"He's sent a consistent word throughout the (Catholic) church and society that we ought to take into account the preciousness of life," Bush said.

He said his decision revolves around "the need to balance value and respect for life with the promise of science in the hope of saving life."

Bush made his comments at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The 81-year-old pontiff and Bush met behind closed doors at the papal summer residence Castel Gandolfo in the foothills south of Rome. Bush said John Paul did not raise the subject of stem cell research during their private session, but focused on foreign policy and Bush's meeting Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While contemplating his decision, Bush also has been actively courting the United States' 44 million Catholic voters. He said he would listen to all sides of the debate but added that the stem cell matter is not a political decision for him.

"I frankly do not care what the political polls say," Bush said. "I do care about the opinions of people, particularly someone as profound as the Holy Father."

Bush also said he admires the Catholic Church because "it's a church that stands on consistent and solid principle."

John Paul, stooped and frail in his chair, read a statement to Bush and his entourage after their private meeting.

"Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the world, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide, and, most recently, proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos destined to destruction in the process.

"A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception to natural death," the pope added.

The pope opposes any stem cell research specifically using embryos, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said. Such research destroys the embryo. Other sources of stem cells - such as umbilical cord blood - are less controversial, however, and were not condemned by the pope.

The pope's admonition raises the political stakes for Bush as he considers federal funding for stem cell research. Allowing the funding to continue could alienate America's 44 million Catholic voters. If he blocks or restricts funding, Bush risks estranging political moderates and millions of disease sufferers who are forcefully mobilizing behind the research.

Bush waved away a question on the matter earlier Monday as he took a stroll with Berlusconi. The president has promised a decision soon on federal funding for stem cell research, but aides say no announcement is imminent.

In contrast to the specific objection John Paul raised, embryos involved in the research that Bush is considering are not created for scientific study but are taken from fertility clinic surpluses that would otherwise be discarded.

Bush thanked the pope for reminding Americans that their prosperity "must be matched with compassion and moral purpose."

"And always to all you have carried the gospel of life, which welcomes the stranger and protects the weak and the innocent," said Bush, who also read from a prepared statement. "Every nation - including my own - benefits from hearing and heeding this message of conscience."

Before their statements, Bush gave John Paul a book of poetry. They stood together on the balcony of the pope's library, overlooking the clear blue waters of Lake Albano, and Bush commented: "On a hot day it looks like a place one would go swimming."

The pontiff's remarks, which Vatican officials a day earlier had not expected, touched upon Bush's pending decision whether to permit federal funds for potentially breakthrough medical research on stem cells from human embryos.

Scientists believe research using stem cells could unlock the cures for diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, diabetes and spinal cord injuries. However, abortion opponents say harvesting the stem cells requires the death of an embryo, which many regard as human life.

Bush sat ramrod straight in his chair, hands folded in his lap during his meeting with the pope. His entourage included first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Barbara, 19. Though Methodists, like the president, the Bush women both followed old Catholic tradition and covered their hair with black lace mantillas.

Also on Monday, Bush met with Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Bush, in reply to a request from Sodano, promised to use whatever influence he has with China to help establish contacts between Beijing and the Vatican.

Later Monday Bush was attending a dinner held by Ciampi at the Quirinale Palace in Rome.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press writer Sandra Sobieraj contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2001 Associated Press