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Stem cell decision weighing on Bush

Published Sep. 10, 2005

President Bush has become much more deeply and emotionally involved than is typical for his young presidency in the vexing decision of whether federal money should be used for embryonic stem cell research, according to lawmakers, aides and even some opponents who have discussed the subject with him in recent days.

Using words such as "grappling" and "agonizing," they paint a portrait of a man who has become well-schooled in the subtleties of the science involved, and immersed himself in the moral and ethical issues at stake. In fact, the president has become so absorbed in the subject that he has become almost preoccupied with it _ and been pushed into a period of true angst over what to do.

As Bush canvasses an eclectic mix of politicians, doctors, religious scholars and even members of his economic team, he is searching for a compromise that not only takes into account the strong political crosscurrents at play, but also fits his own values.

Go slow was the message that Bush heard Tuesday, when he and senior adviser Karl Rove met at the White House to discuss the issue with two leading bioethicists _ Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center in New York and Leon Kass of the University of Chicago.

Both ethicists steered Bush toward taking a cautious route: for now, only funding research on stem cells obtained from adults. While considered inferior by many scientists, adults cells may turn out to be as useful as those obtained from embryos without posing the problem of having to destroy embryos to get them.

"It offends a lot of people," Callahan said, recounting the case he made against the research.

At the heart of Bush's consternation is promising, but controversial, research on embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics. Many scientists say that because embryonic stem cells have the ability to transform into virtually any kind of tissue, they hold hope for treating illnesses such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer. Opponents of the research, however, say it is unethical to destroy potential life to obtain the cells.

In recent days, the scientific picture has become further complicated by reports that a lab in Virginia had created human embryos for the express purpose of extracting stem cells from them, and that a Massachusetts company was trying to clone human embryos to obtain the cells.

The breathtaking speed at which the science is moving dominated much of Tuesday's conversation, said Callahan. And it prompted Bush to scribble questions on newspaper articles reporting the latest developments.

Bush knows science is racing forward, with or without federal funding, Callahan said. "That's why he feels it would be wonderful if we could find a compromise."

What is most noteworthy, said the people who spoke to Bush, is how consumed he has become with the ethical ramifications of what was supposed to be quick, quiet delivery on a campaign pledge to protect life and oppose efforts to destroy human embryos.

"He's basically heard all 87 sides of this and is confronting a very fundamental, moral problem," said Callahan, who said he was impressed with Bush's knowledge on the issue. "He really worries about this _ that's why he's taking so long."

Callahan, a Democrat who did not vote for Bush, told the president embryonic stem cell research has been "oversold" the same way he believes fetal tissue research was "hyped" as a potential cure for Parkinson's 10 years ago.