United Press International- July 9, 2001
WASHINGTON, Jul 08, 2001 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- President George W. Bush on Monday returns to the Washington, where pressure is mounting on him to make a final decision on whether to allow federal funds for research on cells from human embryos.
"I'm thinking about it," Bush told reporters last week before joining family for a three-day weekend in Kennebunkport, Maine. "There are no timetables."
At issue is the future of stem cell research, medical studies that use cells from days-old human embryos grown in fertility clinics. Abortion opponents say the practice, which destroys the embryo, is no different than terminating a pregnancy. But advocates say stem cell research represents the best hope for treating conditions ranging from chronic burns to Alzheimer's.
Stem cells -- called pluripotent cells -- can develop into the entire range of cellular tissues that make up the body. Scientists believe they can eventually use stem cells to regenerate tissues damaged from diseases like Parkinson's, diabetes and multiple sclerosis, among others.
Stem cells have been successfully implanted in animals to help them regain function in dead tissues. In one experiment, animals with spinal cord injuries regained function in their hind legs after stem cells were implanted in their spinal cords. In another study, animals that had suffered strokes regained some of their motor function and mental function after stem cells were implanted in their brains.
Amid public outcry, the National Institutes of Health banned studies using stem cells from aborted fetuses or human embryos in January 1999. But the Clinton administration in August said stem cells from frozen embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics could be used for research.
Bush moved to block the research when he came into office by ordering a policy review of the Clinton administration NIH guidelines. The White House also called off an August NIH meeting to review applications for federal grants for stem cell research, effectively leaving the matter in limbo until Bush's final decision.
White House advisors say Bush is torn on the issue, which represents perhaps the toughest political and ethical question he has faced since taking office.
"It's just not a clear easy answer on this issue," said Mark McKinnon, a former Bush campaign official who now serves as on unofficial White House adviser.
"It's an emotional, moral and political decision, and it will have big ripples any way it goes," McKinnon said. "This is one of those lonely calls for a president I think he really just has to sort of step back and make the call himself."
Avowedly anti-abortion, Bush signaled opposition to stem cell research during the campaigns and shored up support among conservatives. As a candidate, Bush stressed his anti-abortion sentiments but stopped short of vowing to end stem cell research if elected. Top campaign advisers, many of whom now play key roles in the administration, privately said a Bush White House would take steps against the stem cell research funds the Clinton administration put forward, however.
Bush's initial moves in office were in step with his campaign stance, but his prolonged indecision underscores the difficulty in dealing with a quandary that has spilt the Republican Party in an emotional debate that intensified in recent weeks.
Republican Sen. Orin Hatch, a staunch abortion opponent from Utah, has led a small but influential group of conservatives, including Senate minority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who are urging Bush to free federal funds for stem cell research. Hatch, Lott and former Florida Sen. Connie Mack, once considered a possible running mate for Bush, say the possible scientific advances stem cell research could offer to living disease sufferers outweighs the rights of the unborn.
"The idea that it might have health benefits is attractive to everybody when you talk about Parkinson's or juvenile diabetes," Lott said during a recent news conference. "We are all sympathetic to that and have friends that suffer."
Bush's Cabinet and top White House officials are divided, too. On one side, Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, argues against stem cell research on moral and political grounds. Allowing federal money to destroy embryos, Rove says, will alienate conservatives at the core of the Republican base and chill Republican support among Catholics, who could be a pivotal voting in bloc in 2004 and beyond.
But Secretary of Health and Human Service Tommy Thompson backs stem cell research. So does White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who lost a father to Parkinson's disease in 1994 and a mother to Alzheimer's last year. Both diseases are conditions that scientists say stem cell research could benefit.
Bush, too, confronts deeply personal feelings in thinking through the policy decision. In 1953, Bush lost his younger sister to Leukemia, another among the dozens of chronic diseases scientist say stem cells could treat in life-saving new ways.
Bush was seven when his sister Robin died. Her death at three still weighs heavily on the Bush family, whom the president huddled with at the Walker's Point mansion on the Maine coast over the weekend after celebrating his 55th birthday.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.