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Jewish World Review June 13, 2000 /10 Sivan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

On Stem Cells, Bush Has Wrong Pro-Life Stance -- TEXAS GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH has been signaling that he's a "soft" pro-lifer who opposes abortion but wouldn't outlaw it. But he's taking a hard line against stem cell research that might save the lives of millions of sick people.

Bush says he will maintain the GOP platform's absolute opposition to all abortions and will sign bills limiting the procedure, but he's made it clear he won't push for repeal of the Roe vs. Wade decision.

Also, he won't rule out naming a pro-choice running mate and he says he won't be bound by any abortion litmus test in nominating Supreme Court justices.

As a result, Bush gets the best of political worlds: The right-to-life movement is appeased, if not ecstatic, while moderate women think their constitutional rights are safe with him.

Unfortunately, though, Bush is siding with the pro-life movement on the issue of federal funding of medical research using embryonic stem cells, which has the promise of curing diseases including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's.

The National Right to Life Committee and the nation's Roman Catholic bishops oppose the research because it involves destruction of embryos - even though the embryos are left over and destined to be discarded by fertility clinics.

Bush's position was first disclosed in the Wall Street Journal on May 30. The governor's aides told me he favors a ban on federal funding "because of his pro-life views." Asked how much politics weighed into the decision, they said, "very little."

According to aides, Bush also opposes federal research using tissue obtained from aborted fetuses, though it would be harder to stop by presidential executive order because it's been authorized by Congress.

The right-to-life movement fought fetal tissue research in the 1980s and successfully persuaded Ronald Reagan and Bush's father to ban federal funding by executive order.

During various Congressional fights to lift the ban, disease groups won over such pro-life Republicans as then-Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.) and Sens. Strom Thurmond (S.C.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Connie Mack (Fla.) and John McCain (Ariz.).

Dole declared in one debate that permitting research to fight disease was "the pro-life position to take." President George Bush vetoed Congress's lifting of his ban, but President Clinton and Congress reversed that policy in 1993.

The research has shown promise in fighting birth defects and Parkinson's disease, which, readers know, my wife suffers from.

Now, stem cells are a burning - and important - side issue of the abortion debate. It is scheduled to hit the floor of the Senate sometime this summer.

Newly isolated in humans, stem cells are the microscopic interior part of days-old embryos. Experiments on mice indicate they can be converted into heart, brain or bone marrow cells - any kind of specialized cells, in fact.

There are no restrictions on private stem cell research, but Congress in 1996 banned federal funding for "research in which human embryos are destroyed."

The Clinton administration is on the verge of issuing guidelines that would permit federally funded researchers to experiment on stem cells they obtain from private sources, though they would not be allowed to derive the cells.

A bill introduced by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would permit researchers to use federal funds both to harvest and experiment with the cells and also establish guidelines for their use.

Reaction to the Specter-Harkin bill indicates the emotional power of arguments on both sides. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said the bill "would officially declare for the first time ... that government may exploit and destroy human life for its own or somebody else's purposes."

On the other side, Professor Lawrence Goldstein of the University of California at San Diego, asked, "The embryos in question will be destroyed in any case. We must then ask: Is it ethical to literally throw away the opportunity to allow all people to benefit from their demise?" Right-to-life spokesmen and Bush aides say that stem cells can be obtained from adult tissue without destroying embryos, but cell biologists claim that research using such cells is far less advanced and promising.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said his candidate understands that stem cells "raise very sensitive and delicate issues involving research and life" and that "it's not an easy issue."

That shows, I guess, that Bush is a compassionate conservative, as he claims. Unfortunately, he has decided to come down on the side of frozen embryos destined for a drainpipe instead of living human beings suffering from dread diseases.

Vice President Al Gore told the Wall Street Journal that the benefits of stem cell research "will answer the fervent prayers of millions of people." On this pro-life issue, Gore wins.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
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08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
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