Washington — President Bush soon must decide on a sensitive issue that pits his opposition to abortion against the search for medical cures using stem cells removed from embryos or aborted fetuses.
Bush opposes spending federal money for what scientists say is potentially life-saving research if it is conducted on fetal and embryonic stem cells, basic human cells that have the potential to develop into any number of tissues and organs, a White House spokesman said.
Advocates for victims of diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and cancer fear that Bush will clamp down on what could be the most promising avenue for cures to date.
At the same time, abortion opponents worry that the president who restricted other abortion-related funding on his first work day as president will abandon them on an issue they view as critical to the debate about when life begins.
Both sides are looking ahead to March 15, the deadline set by the Clinton administration for scientists to apply for what would be the first federal grants issued for research on stem cells.
"If action isn't taken, the timeline will continue and fund things that the president is against," said Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Bush has made clear he opposes using taxpayer money to pay for research using cells or tissue taken from aborted fetuses, while he supports the use of stem cells extracted from adults' blood and bone marrow.
On the use of stem cells extracted from the core of embryos, however, his language has been fuzzy.
"I believe there are some wonderful opportunities for adult stem cell research," Bush said shortly after taking office. "I believe we can find stem cells from fetuses that died a natural death. And I do not support research from aborted fetuses."
The statement was not strong enough for abortion opponents, who would like the president to specifically condemn embryonic stem cell research and prevent taxpayer dollars from supporting it.
"I think that the president has made some either terribly misinformed statements or intentionally misleading statements said," said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League. "I can't imagine that he doesn't understand that the stem cells that are being taken are taken from human embryos, not from fetuses.
"He claims to be pro-life. Well, what's his problem?"
Abortion opponents assert life begins at conception and that destroying an embryo is taking a life.
Pressed to clarify the president's remarks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that Bush does side with abortion opponents.
"He is opposed to taxpayer funding for fetal tissue research from induced abortions. He is opposed to federal funding on stem cells that destroy living human embryos," McClellan said. "The president recognizes the strong emotions on both sides."
McClellan said Bush is unlikely to act on stem cell or fetal tissue research until he receives a recommendation from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush banned federal funding for fetal tissue research, but President Clinton removed that ban in 1993. Since then, Congress voted twice to permit scientists to transplant tissue removed from fetuses into victims of debilitating diseases. As a result, the government has spent $124 million on fetal tissue research, action that even opponents say would be difficult to reverse.
On the other hand, those on both sides of the issue say it would be relatively easy for Bush to halt federal financing of stem cell research, which has not yet begun and is the product of a federal regulation, as opposed to a law, approved by the Clinton administration last year. A spokesman for the National Institutes of Health said the amount of money to be awarded has not been determined.
Thompson opposes abortion. But while he was governor of Wisconsin, he championed privately financed stem cell research at the University of Wisconsin. He has not taken a position on federal funding.
Advocates for abortion rights have remained relatively quiet on the subject, though they say they support the research.
"The issue of stem cell research and fetal tissue research is not really a reproductive rights issue, it's a science issue," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.