How Bush Got There

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For a while this year it seemed that George W. Bush buttonholed everybody he met to get his or her view on stem-cell research. Emissaries from Capitol Hill, delegations of scientists, pro-lifers, bioethicists, patients' advocates, the Pope--if they had a take, they had his ear. "Almost everyone in the White House, well, he asked your opinion at one point," says presidential counselor Karen Hughes. "He also questioned what led you to that decision. He wanted to know the rationale."

Of all the advice Bush got, however, none was more important than the consultation he held on Aug. 2 with doctors and scientists from the National Institutes of Health. Weeks earlier, Bush had sent the NIH on a treasure hunt through clinics and laboratories around the world, searching for available lines of stem cells. These are cells extracted from embryos created for fertility treatments but not used to produce children. The extracted stem cells potentially can be made to grow into any cell in the human body, making them an extraordinary resource in the fight against Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and other diseases.

Religious conservatives argue that using those stem cells means deriving benefit from the destruction of human embryos--fertilized eggs in the early stages of development--in their eyes no less a crime than abortion. And Bush, son of the great tax-promise breaker, did not want to go back on his vow that he would not fund such research. He believed that if he banned federal funding of research using stem cells derived from embryos destroyed in the future, many pro-lifers might swallow their misgivings about the use of stem cells already extracted from discarded embryos. There was still a problem. Bush and his advisers were being told there were probably a dozen, maybe 20, such lines--not enough, many scientists said, to sustain the necessary research. But the Aug. 2 meeting with the NIH scientists lifted that cloud. They told Bush there were more than 65 lines available worldwide--not as many as scientists would like but enough for a plausible compromise.

"It made this decision possible," said a senior White House official. "It allowed you to balance the hopes of research against the moral imperative that the government should not be funding the destruction of human life."

Last spring, when Bush was running for the White House, stem-cell research was for most people an obscure specialty on the frontiers of medicine. In a campaign dominated by education and tax cuts, his promise, made in a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that "taxpayer funds should not underwrite research that involves the destruction of live human embryos" must have seemed like a detail on the margins of his platform, like his pledge to reform the crop-insurance program.

Instead, it has provided the central predicament of his young presidency. It is an issue that has placed Senate pro-lifers like Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond on the side of those who want federal funding, and brought out stars like Mary Tyler Moore and Michael J. Fox to speak on behalf of juvenile diabetics and people with Parkinson's disease, who might benefit from the research. For Bush, the past few weeks provided a supreme opportunity. For a man who has sometimes seemed to lack the gravitas that the presidency demands, the stem-cell debate offered the chance to show that he was thoughtful, earnest, tireless--in short, worthy of holding the title of President of the United States. Bush's prolonged rumination about the right thing to do was not just a time for soul searching. It was a way of signaling that he could engage issues that mattered at a level commensurate with their importance. In the days just before and after his speech, his aides were everywhere to spread the word that Bush had given this question every last ounce of the consideration it deserved. "I think he just really took it seriously," says an Administration official involved in the decision. "He was bombarded from so many sides. I think he just had to sift and sift."

What Bush announced in his televised address last Thursday night was a compromise that was, at least in the short term, wonderfully adroit. By allowing funds for research on the small number of already existing stem-cell lines but denying money for any work with stem cells derived from embryos destroyed in the future, he positioned himself in the narrow political space that allowed him to claim he had not stood in the way of promising medical investigations. At the same time, he could insist that he had kept his promises to the Republican right, which abandoned his father after the elder Bush broke his no-new-taxes pledge. To placate scientists who argue that Bush did not go far enough, he promised "aggressive federal funding of research on umbilical-cord, placenta, adult and animal stem cells, which do not involve the same moral dilemma." The government is already spending $250 million on such research this year.

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