Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2001

Stem cell decision difficult for Bush

President confided to aides about his struggle with issue

August 11, 2001


— It was July 9, a steamy, humid Monday afternoon in the capital, and it had already been a busy day for President Bush. The president had greeted a group of civic volunteers in the Rose Garden, traveled to suburban Virginia to tour a hospital and was in on two contentious White House meetings with advocates for and against stem cell research.

Late in the day Bush had one more Oval Office discussion on stem cell funding, this time with two prominent medical ethicists: Leon Kass of the University of Chicago and Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center on Bioethics. At that meeting, White House officials said Friday, the seed was planted that eventually blossomed into Bush's decision to support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but only on existing cell lines.

At the meeting with Kass and Callahan, senior aide Karen Hughes told reporters, Bush began by venting about his moral dilemma over whether to support medical research that held the promise of generating cures for a wide variety of afflictions but destroyed human embryos in the process.

"I must confess I am wrestling with a difficult decision," Hughes quoted Bush as saying, reading from notes she took at the meeting. "It's a difficult issue for me; on one hand, it offers so much hope; on the other, so much despair."

The ethicists responded by reassuring Bush that he was not alone in his uncertainty. They then went on to discuss a possible way out of the conundrum funding research on cells that have already been taken from embryos but not on any newly extracted ones based on what Hughes called the chicken pox precedent.

The chicken pox vaccine had been developed, Kass and Callahan told Bush, from fetal tissue, quite possibly from aborted fetal tissue. Abortion opponents obviously found that morally troubling. "Yet once the chicken pox vaccine had been developed, and there was no taking back the research or the decision that led to the research, many religious leaders decided ... that the best course of action was to go forward and use the vaccine in the hopes of saving other lives," Hughes said, paraphrasing the ethicists.

According to Hughes and Office of Management and Budget General Counsel Jay Lefkowitz, who briefed reporters on the evolution of Bush's three-month journey toward a decision, the July 9 meeting was one of two pivotal moments on the road to Thursday night's nationally televised announcement of his policy.

The second, they said, occurred nine days ago, when officials from the National Institutes of Health met with Bush and delivered startling news: The number of existing stem cell lines was more than twice as great as previously believed. More than 60 such lines exist throughout the world, they told the president, half of them in the United States.

The NIH report, given in response to a presidential directive to do a definitive canvass, increased Bush's comfort level for limiting funding to research on existing cell lines, Hughes said. "He was very interested in learning that there were such a large number available," she said. "It was a larger number than we had previously thought or been told."

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