Bush Backs Partial Stem Cell Funding

By Amy Goldstein and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 10, 2001

President Bush last night announced the federal government will begin to pay for a limited amount of research on stem cells from human embryos, a politically charged decision that will move taxpayer money slowly into a controversial but promising field of medical inquiry.

In his first presidential address to the American people, Bush said federal grants may be used to conduct studies solely on stem cells that have been harvested from embryos left over at fertility clinics. But he prohibited subsidies of research that involved the creation or destruction of additional embryos.

The decision, which could be overridden by Congress, represents essentially the most restrictive use of federal money the administration could have permitted short of a ban.

Saying the decision placed him at a "difficult moral intersection," Bush, an opponent of abortion, told a television audience last night that research on stem cells "offers both great promise and great peril, so I have decided we must proceed with great care."

Far from resolving the controversy over the government's role in stem cell research, the president's decision is likely to prompt a fresh round of debate over science and morality on Capitol Hill as proponents of the research seek even more funding and opponents try to eliminate all subsidies.

By allowing even partial funding of research involving stem cells, Bush infuriated some conservatives who viewed any subsidies as a betrayal because the research involves the destruction of embryos, which they view as potential life. He drew measured praise from scientists, who were relieved that he had not forbidden federal funding in a field they say could lead to cures for many diseases. But they cautioned that Bush's limitations meant research would now move at a relatively slow pace.

The White House's strategy of disclosing the decision during an 11-minute prime-time speech -- with a backdrop of the Texas prairie that Bush considers home -- reflects the immense political stakes that a question of science policy has taken on for the administration and the Republican Party. The announcement's prominence is particularly striking because -- apart from his first speech to Congress on his budget priorities in February -- Bush has never given a televised address on issues such as tax cuts, education or other central goals of his young presidency.

In recent weeks, Bush's aides have been eager to demonstrate his personal agonizing over whether to permit government subsidies of this type of research. The issue has elicited an outpouring of conflicting advice to Bush from researchers, ethicists, politicians, lobbying groups and the famous -- including former first lady Nancy Reagan and the pope. Even the president's most senior advisers have been divided. The president is said to have spent a portion of every working day on the issue for the past two months.

Last night, the president shared details of his decision-making process, describing "heartfelt letters" he received from ordinary Americans, as well as conflicting advice he collected from experts in various fields. "I have given this issue a great deal of thought, prayer and considerable reflection," he said. "And I have found widespread disagreement."

The stem cell controversy has created unusually intricate political fault lines. Public opinion polls indicate strong support for such research, even among a majority of Catholics, who are considered a crucial constituency if Bush is to win reelection in three years. Some prominent conservatives in the GOP have urged the president to allow subsidies, reasoning that the research holds the potential to reduce suffering from many diseases. But anti-abortion groups and other conservatives denounce such use of stem cells as a destruction of human life. The nation's religious community has been split.

Immediately after Bush's speech, several leading congressional Democrats criticized him for not opening the spigots of federal money wide enough. "Once again, the president has done the bare minimum in order to try and publicly posture himself with the majority of the Americans," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "But Americans know this is not the decision that the science community needs to go forward full force."

Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) was more muted, praising Bush for "a genuine willingness to embrace the concept . . . that the federal role in steering this research is a constructive one." But he, too, said he was concerned about the limits the president placed and predicted that "the Senate will want to take action."

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