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Bush backs limited medical research on embryonic stem cells

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) – President Bush announced support Thursday night for federal funding for limited medical research on embryonic stem cells, a decision he said balanced concerns about ”protecting life and improving life.”

”I have made this decision with great care and I pray it is the right one,” Bush said in the first prime-time speech of his presidency.

Citing the promise of breakthroughs in fighting diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes, Bush said he would approve federal funding, but only for existing lines of embryonic stem cells. That would restrict research to cells from embryos that already have been destroyed.



The president, an opponent of abortion, said he would prohibit the use of federal funds to create any new lines of human embryonic stem cells. He said it was important that ”we pay attention to the moral concerns of the new frontier.”

Even though he sought middle ground on the complex political and moral issue, Bush’s remarks triggered criticism, muted from supporters of research, forceful from opponents.



”The trade-off he has announced is morally unacceptable,” said Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. ”It allows our nation’s research enterprise to cultivate a disrespect for humasn life.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a supporter of research, welcomed Bush’s decision as ”an important step forward.” But, he added, ”it doesn’t go far enough to fulfull the life-saving potential of this promising new medical research.”

Despite claims from some conservative critics, White House aides insisted the president had not broken a campaign pledge. Running for the White House, Bush said he ”opposed research that involves destroying a living human embryo.”

At issue was whether the government should support research on stem cells removed from embryos that are left over from fertility treatments. Supporters of such research see great potential for medical treatments. Opponents insist it is wrong to use human embryos for research. Bush, as a candidate, opposed federal funding for research that destroys human embryos.

Stem cells are created by removing an inner cell mass from a 5- to 7-day-old embryo. The procedure kills the embryo. When properly nurtured, the cells are able to replicate, or divide, virtually forever, creating what is called a stem cell line.

Bush made his speech from a house on his Texas ranch, the flat landscape visible through the window behind him. Earlier in the day, and a thousand miles away, opponents of stem cell research marched outside the White House to register their concerns.

To soften the news to his conservative critics, Bush said he was creating a president’s council – led by conservative biomedical ethicist Leon Kass of the University of Chicago – to monitor the research and recommend guidelines and regulations. Other ethicists, scientists, doctors, lawyers and theologians will also be named to the council.

In his speech, Bush said he had read and consulted widely before reaching his decision. In a politically poignant reference, he said he had heard from former first lady Nancy Reagan, an opponent of abortion who supports research. Her husband was a staunch opponent of abortion who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, one of the illnesses that scientists hope to conquer through stem cell research.

”As I thought through this issue I kept returning to two fundamental questions,” Bush said.

”First, are these frozen embryos human life and therefore something precious to be protected? And second, if they’re going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn’t they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?

In reaching his decision, Bush sorted through conflicting advice from ethicists, anti-abortionists, advocates for the ill, researchers and Pope John Paul II.

Major researchers in the field had estimated that there were only about a dozen stem cell lines in existence, and that some of those would not meet strict National Institutes of Health standards for research. Bush said, however, that there are more than 60 existing lines that met his criteria for research. There was no immediate explanation for the different figures.

Stem cells are capable of developing into any of the body’s organs but not into a complete individual. These cells form inside an embryo a few days after fertilization.

By properly nurturing embryonic stem cells, experts believe they can grow new cells to restore ailing organs in chronically ill patients. For instance, new insulin-producing cells could be grown, perhaps to cure diabetes.

Congress has banned government money for stem cell research that destroys embryos. But the Clinton administration ruled that such research could receive federal funding as long as private money financed the part of the process that actually destroyed the embryo – the extraction of the stem cells. Bush delayed such funding while he reviewed the policy.

Bush made his decision Wednesday after a meeting with top aides on his ranch in central Texas. Aides maintained the secrecy that characterized the process, giving 14 hours notice of his nationally televised address without revealing the decision to anyone but a tiny circle of advisers.

Among those Bush consulted were Catholic leaders, National Institutes of Health scientists and representatives of the National Right To Life Committee and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

The last expert that Bush heard from on the issue was a pro-research bioethicist who spoke with the president in the Oval Office a week ago.

Bush put the finishing touches on his speech Thursday, went jogging and fished.

Associated Press writer Laura Meckler in Washington contributed to this report.


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