Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2001 / 15 Shevat 5761
The controversy starts: Bush orders HHS study of
fetal, stem cell issues
SHOWING gratifying open-mindedness, President Bush has
decided not to order an immediate ban on federal stem cell and
fetal tissue research, despite his personal qualms and election
campaign assurances to right-to-life groups.
Bush's decision is a reversal from indications last week that he
might issue an executive order banning federal funding of such
According to a senior White House official, Bush "is in no rush to
take action on these issues" and has forwarded them for study
to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer confirmed to me that "the
President wants the department to carefully explore the issues"
and that "if there is any executive order, it will follow the HHS
Bush's decision is an enormous relief to disease victims and
organizations representing them, who feared that he would
issue an early executive order prohibiting federal funds from
going to these types of research.
Stem cell and fetal tissue research hold out dramatic hope for
curing maladies including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou
Gehrig's diseases, spinal cord injuries, severe burns, cancer,
diabetes, certain forms of blindness and birth defects. I'm
biased on this issue because my wife suffers from Parkinson's.
As late as last week, Bush said he did not believe that federal
money should be spent on fetal tissue or stem cell research
"derived from induced abortions."
He also indicated that he supported a position advanced by the
Roman Catholic Church - that the research potential of
so-called "adult stem cells" was sufficient that the government
need not fund cell research using material from embryos or
Bush enunciated similar positions during the presidential
campaign, which various White House spokesmen have since
Exactly what turned Bush around, I don't know. But Fleischer
said Bush "understands the sensitivities on all sides" and "sees
this as a complex question of ethics and the promise of science"
that requires further study.
Officials emphasized that the matter is not settled, but disease
advocates believe that incoming HHS Secretary Tommy
Thompson, though opposed to abortion, is a supporter of
embryonic stem cell research.
As Wisconsin governor, Thompson resisted state legislation last
year to ban the "sale" of stem cells, the inner core of days-old
embryos that may be induced to grow into any kind of cell in
the body, but not a complete human.
Right-to-life groups oppose stem cell research because it
requires destroying human embryos - even though those used
for the research have been left behind at fertility clinics and are
destined for destruction.
Federal law bars government funding of research that requires
destroying human embryos, but the Clinton administration ruled
that grantees could work on stem cells so long as federal money
was not actually used to remove them from embryos.
This ruling could be overturned by executive order - much as
President Clinton in 1993 reversed an order of Bush's father
barring federal funding of research using tissue from aborted
Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) are about
to reintroduce a bill that would allow federal funds to be used to
derive stem cells from embryos and also set out legal guidelines
to ensure that embryos are not mass produced for research.
As Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss reported, the
possibility also exists that Bush could ban federal funding of
fetal tissue research, currently worth $20 million, because a
1993 law only applied to transplantation experiments, not other
Bush indicated last week that he thought research could
proceed using tissue from miscarriages, but the White House's
latest statements mean that this issue will also be sent to HHS
Politically, Bush's actions will come as a disappointment to
conservative activists, but Bush previously fulfilled promises to
them by reinstituting his father's ban on federal funding of
groups that counsel abortion overseas.
Bush also may have wanted to avoid a distracting fight with
disease groups. Or the truth may be as simple as White House
officials explain it: Bush sees this as a morally difficult and
Bush received a letter from former Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.),
an opponent of abortion rights, urging him to permit stem cell
research and another one from 123 scientific, academic and
That letter pointed out that potential benefits from "adult" stem
cells, which are derived from the blood and marrow of live
humans, should not preclude research on embryonic stem cells.
To me, it's obvious that the true "pro-life" side of this argument
is to save lives using cells from microscopic frozen embryos that
are destined for destruction anyway.
Bush deserves credit for not stubbornly sticking to a campaign
position and for being willing to consider an alternative point of
view. Disease victims appreciate that kind of compassionate
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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