More MS news articles for June 2001

Bush Nears Decision On Stem-Cell Research June 26, 2001

Embryonic stem cells, the basic building blocks of all human tissue, have created a political and ethical dilemma for President Bush - and his own advisers are divided over how to resolve it.

Scientists say stem-cell research holds the potential for true medical breakthroughs that could lead to cures for heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer and diabetes as well as new, more effective treatments for debilitating brain and spinal injuries.

But anti-abortion rights groups, the Catholic Church and many conservative lawmakers say the practice is immoral because it uses cells extracted from living embryos that are destroyed in the process.

'The President Is Really Conflicted'

Caught in the middle is a Republican president who is nearing a decision on whether to allow government money to be spent on the controversial research.

"The president is really conflicted on this issue," said an administration official involved with the discussions over stem-cell research.

Bush's predecessor, former President Clinton, permitted federally funded medical researchers to perform research using stem cells as long as they did not destroy the embryos themselves. Bush could allow that policy to continue under his watch, ban funding altogether or come up with a compromise of his own.

The political debate over stem-cell research in many respects mirrors the polarizing fight over abortion rights, with rival camps at odds over the basic question of when life begins.

The stem cells most useful for biomedical research are found in embryos formed just after the human egg and sperm combine. Extracting the cells requires that those just-fertilized eggs be destroyed. Many abortion-rights opponents believe life begins at fertilization and argue that destroying embryos or using cells from destroyed embryos is unethical.

"It has never been, and it will never be, acceptable to kill one person for the benefit of another no matter how big or how promising the purported benefit," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said in a recent floor speech.

But illustrating the peculiar political dynamics at play in the debate, a number of conservative Republicans who strongly oppose abortion also support stem-cell research.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has written a letter to Bush urging him to allow it to continue. And Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who has a daughter with juvenile diabetes, and former Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., himself a cancer survivor, have also gone on record in support of federal funding.

Destroying an embryo is not the same as an abortion, they argue. And many supporters point out that stem cells can be extracted from embryos from privately funded fertility clinics that would be discarded anyway.

The handful of conservatives is joined by moderate GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and most Democrats.

Bush's 'Middle Ground'

Key figures within the Bush administration are also divided over the issue of federal funding.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was a vocal advocate of stem-cell research as governor of Wisconsin and backs continued government funding.

But one of the president's most trusted aides, political adviser Karl Rove, has warned Bush that giving the green light to federally funded stem-cell research would anger many conservatives, particularly Catholics a key group of swing voters.

At a June 1 meeting at the White House, Bush told Thompson and the director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Richard Klausner, and others that he was genuinely undecided on how to proceed and urged them to craft a solution that captured the "middle ground," according to the administration official who spoke to ABCNEWS.

But opponents of the practice say there is no middle ground.

"If embryonic tissue at this earliest stage is permissible fodder for laboratory experimentation then why not embryonic tissue derived from tissue a week later, or two week later or six weeks later?" conservative activist Gary Bauer asked in a column appearing today on the Web site Beliefnet. "Human life is either sacred from conception to its natural end or it's not."

The administration official said, however, that the group of White House and HHS staffers charged with formulating a proposed policy are leaning toward a plan that would permit government-funded research to use only stem cells that have already been extracted from embryos.

The hypothetical plan would allow the research to continue for a finite period of time perhaps three years so that researchers could build up a "body of scientific evidence." It would also allow the administration to re-evaluate the potential benefits of continued research at a later date and, in the meantime, to accurately claim that its actions would not lead to the further destruction of any embryos.

As Bush's advisers deliberate in private, celebrities like actress Mary Tyler Moore and retired astronaut Jim Lovell joined some 200 children with juvenile diabetes at a packed public hearing on Capitol Hill today to plead for more funding for research including stem-cell research.

"Please ask yourself, is the life of one child with diabetes like me or any of the other kids here less important than a cell the size of a dot?" 10-year-old Tessa Wick urged members of a Senate subcommittee panel.

According to a new ABCNEWS/Beliefnet poll, Americans support government-funded stem-cell research by a 2-1 margin. Among the supporters are 60 percent of Catholics, the constituency that Rove is said to be concerned with offending.

The president is expected to announce his decision next month.

Copyright 2001