Castel Gandolfo, Italy Pope John Paul II urged President Bush on Monday to reject research on human embryos as Bush weighs government funding for the burgeoning science. Respectful but noncommittal, the president said, "I'll take that point of view into consideration."
Bush said after his first face-to-face meeting with the pontiff that stem cell research offers the prospect of huge medical advances but is fraught with "serious moral implications."
The frail 81-year-old Roman Catholic leader welcomed Bush to the papal summer retreat in the foothills southeast of Rome. The pontiff added his voice to the debate about one of the most momentous issues of Bush's young presidency.
The president soon must decide whether to permit federal funds for medical research on stem cells pulled from human embryos.
"A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception to natural death," the pope said with Bush sitting at his side.
The pontiff was stooped, his head tilted to one side, as he read from a script.
"Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the world," John Paul said. He pointed to euthanasia, infanticide and "proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos destined to destruction in the process."
His admonition raised the political stakes for Bush, who aides say is likely to announce his decision next month.
Allowing the funding could alienate some of America's 44 million Catholics, who make up an important political bloc. If Bush cuts or restricts the funding, he risks being accused of bowing to the pope and other religious and conservative leaders.
Praising the pontiff as a spiritual and political leader, Bush promised to take the pope's views into consideration as he tries to "balance value and respect for life with the promise of science, and the hope of saving life."
The pope's decision to lobby Bush may have been an unwelcome surprise. White House officials had said in advance that they didn't think the issue would come up, and Bush said the pope did not bring it up during the private meeting before their public remarks.
Embryonic stem cells are the basic building blocks for body tissue. To extract these cells for research requires killing the embryo an action consistently rejected by the Catholic Church and other abortion opponents as the taking of human life.
Bush visited the pope the Apostolic Palace at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of popes since the 17th century. He brought along first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Barbara, 19. The Bush women, both Methodists, followed an old Catholic tradition and covered their hair with black lace mantillas.
While the pope clearly condemned the future destruction of embryos to draw stem cells, he did not detail his views about the wide array of avenues for stem cell research. Bush, for example, is considering potential compromises involving research on stem cells derived from fertility clinic surpluses that would otherwise be discarded.
The Vatican seemed to close the door on that, too.
Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope opposes any stem cell research using embryos. Other sources of stem cells such as umbilical cord blood and adult stem cells are less controversial and are not condemned by the pope.
Scientists believe research using stem cells might unlock cures for diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes, as well as spinal cord injuries. The pope himself suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
Bush and John Paul met one-on-one for about 30 minutes, with no translators or aides.
Later, at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Bush called stem cell research "a very difficult issue" and said he would not be rushed to a decision.
Expecting political fallout no matter what Bush does, the White House is planning a high-profile announcement to explain his decision and shape public opinion.
Bush also met with the Vatican's top diplomat who asked that the United States use its influence with China to help establish contacts with the Holy See. Bush promised to ask Beijing to do so.
Bush ends his weeklong European trip today with a visit with U.S. troops in Kosovo.