Bush's Stem Cell Policy Reiterated, but Some See Shift
NIH Director's Letter to Lawmakers Acknowledges That Science Could Benefit From Added Cell Lines
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A18
In a highly anticipated response to members of Congress who support wider research on human embryonic stem cells, the director of the National Institutes of Health late Friday reiterated the Bush administration position against the use of federal funds for research that destroys human embryos.
But the four-page letter from Elias A. Zerhouni to Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) included a sentence that supporters of the research said offered a hint that the president may be working toward a compromise on the issue -- albeit one that most agreed is unlikely to solidify before the election in November.
The letter from Zerhouni -- written at the request, it said, of President Bush, and which sources said was vetted by the White House -- is in response to a letter sent to Bush late last month by DeGette, Castle and 204 other members of the House calling for a loosening of the current restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research.
Those rules, laid down by Bush almost three years ago, ban the use of taxpayer dollars for research on human embryos destroyed after Aug. 9, 2001. As a result, federally funded researchers do not have access to more recently derived colonies that they say show more potential to be developed into cures.
A similar letter is currently being circulated in the Senate, where Hill watchers said it has about 50 signatures so far. Additional pressure has been mounting from patient groups and even from Nancy Reagan, who last weekend made her most public plea yet for the research. Some scientists believe that the cells could lead to a treatment for Alzheimer's disease, which has afflicted Ronald Reagan for years.
The letter from Zerhouni mostly reiterated past administration statements. But in what some proponents said was a significant shift, the letter included this sentence:
"And although it is fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research, the president's position is still predicated on his belief that taxpayer funds should not 'sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.' "
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said it would be wrong to read into those words a sense that the president's position has shifted. But several stem cell supporters said this was the first acknowledgement by the administration that the science could benefit from added lines, or colonies, of cells -- a change that leaves the president's opposition now resting purely on ethical grounds. In the past he and other officials have argued that the limited number of eligible colonies were adequate for research purposes.
It is a subtle point. But it may be, some said, that the president, by dropping the scientific argument and relying entirely on his desire not to destroy embryos with the "potential for life," is working toward a solution in which surplus frozen embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics may someday be made available for research, as proponents hope.
"I can't imagine they didn't parse this thing very carefully, so it's encouraging that it at least leaves the possibility of discussion concerning a possible expansion," Castle said of the letter, copies of which were sent to all 206 House signers.
"Obviously it's a very politically crafted sentence," said Tony Mazzaschi, an associate vice president at the Association of American Medical Colleges. "You can just imagine what it took to get that in. I do see some movement here."
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