President Bush was involved in a recent discussion on Medicare with members of Congress when he abruptly began musing about stem cell research. "The subject was clearly on his mind," recalled Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
The president unexpectedly brought up the matter again Wednesday afternoon at the end of a meeting with physicians on the patients' bill of rights.
Bush is famous for his quick executive decisions and abhorrence of long briefings or memos.
But as he confronts the most politically sensitive decision of his presidency thus far, Bush is agonizing to an unusual degree.
Faced with a decision over whether to allow federal funding for research using stem cells from human embryos, the president finds himself caught between the unyielding opposition of social conservatives, who say embryo research is immoral, and the heart-rending pleas of people with diseases, like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, that might be cured through such research.
With little fanfare, Bush is consulting widely. He is soaking up information, opinions and advice--and, above all, taking his time trying to forge a compromise.
His Hamlet-like posture is a striking departure for a man who, as governor of Texas, spent just 15 minutes reviewing a scheduled execution.
"The president is really putting a lot of thought into it," marveled Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), who only a month ago publicly chastised Bush for not focusing on details of issues that came across his desk.
This week alone, Bush has met with representatives of various disease organizations, anti-abortion groups and leading bioethicists, according to the White House. He is said to be truly conflicted, in part because many anti-abortion voices--like former Florida Sen. Connie Mack and Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch--are urging him to put science first.
Among those with whom Bush has discussed the issue are Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). At the same time, former First Lady Nancy Reagan has weighed in, discreetly sending word from California to Lott and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that she favors funding.
In his uncharacteristic preoccupation, the president has come to epitomize society's quandary over a growing array of bioethical dilemmas thrust upon decision makers by breakthrough science.
"It is a very complicated and nuanced decision, and it's something the president is approaching in a very thoughtful and deliberative fashion," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "The president views this as . . . a matter that involves very sensitive and important issues that involve questions that are fundamental about life, about preserving life with science on the other hand."
Bush must decide whether to allow the federal government to offer the first-ever grants for research using stem cells from human embryos. These cells have the ability to transform themselves into nearly every other cell type in the body, and scientists hope to use them to produce new tissues for diabetics, cardiac patients, Alzheimer's disease victims and a variety of other patients.
Anti-abortion groups, however, say the research is immoral because embryos are destroyed in the course of obtaining stem cells. They want Bush to block a plan, issued last year by the National Institutes of Health, to fund the research.
The Bush administration has put that plan on hold while it reviews the funding policy. But events seem to be complicating Bush's decision-making process--and increasing the pressure on him to act.
Opponents of the research have gone to court to block any government funding, while a group of seven scientists, joined by the actor and spinal cord injury patient Christopher Reeve, has filed suit to force the government to support the research. In Congress, lawmakers have filed competing legislation that would authorize NIH funding or encourage the agency to work with other cell types that do not come from embryos.
Moreover, announcements this week about experiments conducted at private facilities have also raised pressure on Bush to move quickly. The Massachusetts company Advanced Cell Technology Inc., for instance, said it had collected egg cells from donors as part of a plan to produce cloned embryos, which in turn would yield stem cells.
"All this shows that scientists keep pushing the envelope on what they are willing to do with embryos. It's all the more reason for the president to ban public funding now," said Scott Weinberg of the American Life League, an anti-abortion group.
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a physician, agreed that the recent laboratory developments demonstrate why Bush should move quickly to block federal funding. "This puts a fire under people to convince them that we really need to act on this issue," he said.
At the White House, Fleischer said Bush will "continue to listen very carefully to all sides of this issue so that when he makes his decision it will be a very informed decision, it will be a very sensitive decision, it will be a decision that recognizes the deep complexities that this matter raises for our society."
Like Hagel, many top White House aides and other members of Congress also have been struck by Bush's absorption in the issue as they await his decision.
"He is working very hard on it," said Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services.
"He's really spending a huge amount of time on this issue--and in a very quiet way," added Frist. "I know personally that he has talked to a broad range of people, from science to church to disease organizations to ethicists."
Frist said Bush brought up the matter as recently as Thursday morning during a meeting with members of Congress on Medicare reform--just before a public appearance in the Rose Garden.
"When he's in meetings talking about other things, he brings up stem cells," Frist said.
Hagel lauded the president for his attention to the issue. "This is a true life-and-death issue. This is not one where you can just branch off into your general philosophy," he said.