Bush finds balance in stem cell debate

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2001

WASHINGTON -- It was a balancing act as precarious as any in politics. On one side stood patients with horrible diseases and scientists who might cure them. On the other side: Longtime supporters, who warned of political and moral fallout, who said this research amounts to killing one baby to save another.

President Bush, facing intense and emotional pressure, weighed the scales -- for weeks as he contemplated whether to fund embryonic stem cell research, and then for 11 minutes as he explained his decision to the nation.

With the final decision sure to disappoint some -- if not many -- the White House calculated that Bush's only hope was to get out the message that he didn't take any of it lightly.

On this front, he succeeded, with activists on both sides of the divisive issue giving the president credit for thoughtful consideration. His televised address showed the nation a president who understood the scientific and ethical issues at stake.

At the same time, Bush may have accomplished a task far more dicey, making a split-the-difference decision that gave people on both sides of the debate some comfort: Yes, the government would pay for research on stem cells derived from human embryos -- but only with lines that have already been created. If new embryos are destroyed, the stem cells they yield would not be eligible for tax-supported research.

Most said they were disappointed that they didn't get everything they wanted -- either full funding for research, or none at all. Many promised to take their fight to the halls of Congress.

But a striking theme ran through the reaction, with people on both sides praising Bush's stab at a middle ground.

''I respect the president's decision, and the deliberative approach through which he reached it,'' said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

''It was a very good, clear and balanced outcome,'' said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents biotech companies and universities that conduct stem cell research. ''Who would have thought six months ago, four months ago that the president would allow federal funding for research?''

Similar words came from the other side of the scale.

''I'm disappointed but I'm not grieved,'' said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. ''He held the line.'' A longtime Bush backer, Land added that he is convinced Bush made his decision based on his ''moral and spiritual compass,'' not through political calculations.

Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, a fierce opponent of the research, agreed. ''Last month at the White House, President Bush looked me in the eye and told me that he would make a decision on stem cell research from his heart -- not from politics or polls -- and I believe he has,'' he said.

Bush promised to oppose this funding during his presidential campaign, but he wasn't really confronted with the issue until he had been in office for a few months.

He faced intense threats from Christian conservatives who enthusiastically supported him, who warned that a pro-research decision could turn him into a one-term president. But Republicans -- even anti-abortion Republicans -- were hardly in agreement, and some high-profile GOP leaders delivered the opposite advice.

Polls suggested that a solid majority of Americans supported the funding, though Bush insisted that polls didn't figure in his calculations.

He began his speech Thursday by making clear his angst.

''Many people are finding that the more they know about stem cell research, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions,'' he said.

He explained how fertilized eggs -- embryos -- are often leftover from fertility treatments and how scientists believe that stem cells inside might help cure diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. He explained why scientists believe these cells are more useful that those found in adults, and why federal funding will help this research advance.

He then looked toward the other side of the scale. This research destroys human embryos, he explained, and the potential it holds for life. ''Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being,'' he said.

Again and again, he returned to the balancing act.

''I've asked (difficult) questions ... of scientists, scholars, bioethicists, religious leaders, doctors, researchers, members of Congress, my Cabinet and my friends,'' he told Americans. ''I have read heartfelt letters from many Americans. I have given this issue a great deal of thought, prayer, and considerable reflection, and I have found widespread disagreement.''

About that, there was no doubt.

Laura Meckler covers health policy for The Associated Press.

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