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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2001 / 15 Shevat 5761

Morton Kondracke

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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 research.

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 review."

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 aborted fetuses.

Bush enunciated similar positions during the presidential campaign, which various White House spokesmen have since reiterated.

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 fetuses.

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 research.

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 for study.

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 complex subject.

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 disease groups.

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 conservatism.

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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