In a development that could help President Bush navigate one of the thorniest issues of his administration, several leading conservative Catholic intellectuals have told the White House they are open to a plan that would allow the government to fund certain medical experiments that use stem cells from human embryos.
Bush has said he will soon decide whether to fund embryo cell research, which many scientists believe will lead to new treatments for a range of diseases. By backing the research, Bush might win favor with millions of ailing people. But he would anger anti-abortion groups and most Roman Catholic leaders, who have said there is no scenario in which government funding for the research would be morally acceptable.
The issue is especially tricky for Bush because his chief political strategist believes Catholic voters will play a pivotal role in the next presidential election. Choosing between medical needs of patients and abortion opponents puts Bush “in a no-win situation,” said Gov. Thomas J. Ridge (R-Pa.).
Now, however, three conservative Catholics who advise the White House are saying a compromise may be possible. Depending on how the details shape up, these opinion leaders may publicly offer arguments for why some funding of embryo experiments is morally acceptable and help Bush win support for the policy among Catholic leaders and voters.
The advisors are focusing in particular on one option, now under discussion among White House aides, in which the government would pay only for research that uses existing stem cells scientists already have isolated from embryos. Any experiment that caused the destruction of additional embryos to obtain new cells would be ineligible for federal funds.
Spokesmen for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents the church in the United States, specifically have rejected this idea, saying it would make the government complicit in embryo destruction. But one of the nation’s leading Catholic thinkers on abortion issues now is offering a different view. “I can imagine circumstances in which this would not only be politically acceptable but could be a morally justified policy,” said Robert P. George, a moral philosopher at Princeton University who participates in a weekly telephone conference of Catholic intellectuals that often includes White House staff.
Another participant in the weekly calls, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, who leads a Michigan-based ethics think tank, said he has told the White House that the compromise might be regarded as acceptable and consistent with church teachings if it ensures that the government never pays for the destruction of another embryo.
“I am open to it,” said Deal W. Hudson, editor and publisher of Crisis, a Catholic magazine. While the compromise would be “a victory for those who want to use embryonic stem cells, it can also be seen as a victory for the pro-life side,” Hudson said, “because it ensures, for the time being, that there is no more government support for the destruction of embryos for their stem cells.”
The stem cell issue came up during the conference call Thursday, Sirico said, but he would not give details. The Catholic advisors have seen no formal proposal and have not endorsed any.
Still, the comments from the three advisors suggest there is more diversity among conservative Catholic leaders regarding the stem cell issue than previously has appeared in public debate. If Bush moves in any way to support embryo cell research, it will be crucial that he win the support of at least some conservative Catholic leaders, George said. “Then they could say there’s a range of opinion and that this issue is not like abortion or euthanasia,” which are uniformly condemned by church leaders and ethicists.
Embryonic stem cells, first isolated in 1998, have drawn wide interest because they can give rise to any other tissue in the body--nerve cells, heart muscle, insulin-producing cells and the like. Scientists hope to use the cells to grow replacement tissue for people with heart disease, diabetes, muscular dystrophy and other ailments.
The National Institutes of Health last year moved to start federal funding for stem cell research. The cells were to come from embryos donated by patients at fertility clinics. These patients commonly produce more embryos than they will use in any one attempt to have a child. The patients usually discard the extras or freeze them for a future attempt at pregnancy, but hundreds--if not thousands--of embryos have wound up frozen indefinitely in fertility clinic storage tanks.
The Bush administration put the NIH funding plan on hold to review the policy. It is unclear when Bush will announce a decision. He is scheduled to meet July 23 with Pope John Paul II in Italy, and some advisors feel the president runs the lowest risk of offending the pope or appearing to be swayed by him if he settles the issue before the trip.
There is no federal prohibition on using private funds to obtain or work with embryo cells, and several groups have produced embryonic stem cells using private money. It is these cells that would be used under the potential compromise.
The compromise is one of several floated in recent weeks by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, the administration’s major proponent of embryo cell research, people familiar with the discussions say.
By pursuing a compromise, the White House risks angering people on both sides of the issue. Some scientists and patient advocacy groups oppose Thompson’s idea, saying the stem cells already harvested by researchers do not include enough genetic diversity to show the full potential of embryo cells. That is because they come from only a dozen or so donors.
“The cells available now are not a sufficient number,” said Douglas Melton, a diabetes researcher and chairman of Harvard University’s department of molecular and cellular biology. “Some of the lines don’t grow well.” Others do well at some tasks but fail at others, he said. “We think some have a predisposition to make nerve cells, and others to make muscle.”
To understand the full potential of the cells, Melton said, scientists should work with cells from between 100 and 1,000 embryos “and we should have four to five years to find out whether the promise and high expectations in these cells are borne out.”
Under a second compromise under discussion at the White House, the government would give money to private groups for non-embryo research. The groups then would be able to divert their own money to embryo experiments.
Sirico said this option was “even more preferable” because it would distance the government further from embryo destruction. But George disagreed, and Richard Doerflinger, an official of the bishops conference, said the group also rejected the idea.
In remaining open to a compromise, the Catholic advisors to the White House are saying that embryo research raises two separate moral questions.
One is whether it is acceptable to destroy human embryos. The Catholic advisors and the bishops conference both say this is not acceptable under church doctrine and that the principle can never be violated.
The second question is whether a researcher or patient can use or benefit from embryo cells if some other person carried out the actual dissection of the embryo to obtain the cells. George called this a “murkier” question that remains unsettled under church doctrine and that the answer depends on the circumstances.
But Sirico, as well as bioethicists from other religious traditions, have drawn comparisons to the potential use today of data from Nazi experiments on Jews and other prisoners during the Holocaust. Many have concluded that using the data would make contemporary researchers complicit in the Nazi atrocities. Similarly, they say, a person may not benefit from another person’s destruction of an embryo.
And yet, Sirico said, it might be most important for Bush to put on record that the government opposes the destruction of new embryos, even if it means using cells obtained through past embryo destruction. Employing the Nazi analogy, Sirico said, “If you give me the choice of closing down the death camps while allowing the use of the research data--if you give me that choice--I’ll take it. But it’s still highly problematic.”
Sirico noted that the pope, in the 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, acknowledged that public figures sometimes face imperfect choices and in some cases can support laws that have unjust elements. In some circumstances, the pope said, a public official could support a law that continues access to abortion if the law’s intent was to narrow the number of abortions legally performed.
But Doerflinger said that the Pontifical Academy for Life, an advisory panel to the pope, had rejected this kind of argument for stem cell research. In a declaration in August, the academy said it is not morally acceptable for a researcher to use embryonic stem cells supplied by other scientists. In using the cells, the researcher would be complicit in the act of embryo destruction, the panel said.
The pope said last year that medical techniques that destroy embryos are “not morally acceptable, even when their proposed goal is good in itself.”
Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.