As President Bush nears a decision on the future of medical research using embryo cells, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson is privately promoting a compromise that would allow federal funding for some embryo experiments.
Under the proposed compromise, the federal government would pay for experiments using cells that have already been obtained from embryos but not for any research that requires the destruction of additional embryos, according to an official close to Thompson. The source said Thompson believes that such a compromise would allow scientists to gather enough information on embryonic cells so that a decision on their medical use could be made in several years "based on science, not emotion."
The administration's tension over the issue has reached the point where supporters and opponents of the research disagree even about the state of the internal debate. Thompson has directed his aides to explore the possible compromise with the White House domestic policy staff, but one ranking White House official said Wednesday that Thompson "has had his say" and the issue is now in the hands of Bush and his aides.
At the same time, Thompson has discussed the issue at least twice with Bush over lunch and told aides that he believes the president "is genuinely conflicted" over the controversial research and has not made up his mind.
Thompson's principal adversary in the internal debate has been Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, who has argued that the president risks angering Catholic voters and conservative supporters if he backs the embryo research.
The cells, known as stem cells, are believed by many scientists and by the National Institutes of Health to offer the most promising route to new treatments for a variety of debilitating ailments. But the Catholic Church and antiabortion groups oppose the research because embryos are destroyed in obtaining the cells.
"We are trying to come up with basically a compromise," said the source close to Thompson, who is following the issue closely. "I don't get the sense that the president wants to come out for an all-out ban. We are trying to find . . . some kind of middle ground."
"I'll make a decision about that very emotional issue later on," Bush told reporters Wednesday.
Anti-Abortion Groups Perceive Bush Promise
During the election last fall, Bush's campaign said he opposed research in which embryos are destroyed. Antiabortion groups took that as a promise that Bush, if elected, would block an NIH plan to fund embryonic stem cell research. The NIH announced the plan in August and had accepted proposals from researchers, but the Bush administration put the process on hold while it sorts through the issue. No money has been granted to researchers.
Several antiabortion groups have already made clear that they would oppose the sort of compromise that Thompson is discussing.
"The question is black and white," said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, an antiabortion group. "There is no compromise. You may not kill one person for the sake of another person, and I don't care if that person is a single cell in size."
Thompson has asked the NIH to assess the feasibility of a compromise that would allow research using the existing pool of stem cells that have already been extracted from embryos by researchers using private funds.
"What you could do is have NIH license those stem cell lines and try to do research based on that," said the official close to Thompson. "You would say no embryos can be destroyed, but to the extent we have these embryos already destroyed you can do research, so that in three to five years we can have a scientific justification for going forward or not going forward."
Under the NIH plan, researchers could not create embryos for experimental purposes. But they could use embryos donated by fertility patients as long as they used private funds to extract the stem cells. In the course of producing children at fertility clinics, patients commonly create more embryos in the laboratory than they use. Patients have generally chosen to discard those embryos or to freeze them for future use.
Antiabortion groups would oppose such a compromise and scientists might consider it inadequate. Only a handful of cell lines have been created and some scientists say they want to work with cells from several dozen embryos.
As the administration debates the issue, advocates of embryo-cell research have increased political pressure on Bush. They have tried to establish a scientific argument for the research by, among other things, winning signatures from 80 Nobel laureates on a letter calling for Bush to allow federal funding.
They have also argued that patients and their advocates bring as much emotion and fervor to the issue as do the antiabortion groups.
Some Powerful Political Backers
Perhaps most important, supporters of the research have won the backing of several prominent politicians with strong antiabortion credentials.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) recently wrote a 12-page, single-spaced letter to Bush outlining his views of how the research "is consistent with our shared pro-life, pro-family values." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said he is "leaning toward supporting it very strongly." Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has said he sees "great potential" for the research, although he has stopped short of endorsing federal funding.
In 1995, Congress barred federal funding for research in which embryos were destroyed. But in 1998, scientists first isolated stem cells in human embryos.
The next year, the Clinton administration, in a legal ruling, determined that although the government could not fund the destruction of embryos, it could support research that used stem cells created with private funds.
Bush could ban such funding by rescinding the Clinton legal ruling and ordering HHS to issue an interpretation that the law bars federal funding for both the use and production of embryonic stem cells.
The recent flurry of GOP support suggests that even if the administration bans the research, the Senate would probably vote to reauthorize it. That would send the debate to an uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled House.
Embryo stem cells have drawn intense interest from researchers because they have the ability to grow into any type of cell or tissue in the body. Scientists hope the cells can be grown into replacement tissue for patients.
Opponents of the embryo research have focused on the fact that the adult body contains various other types of stem cells. Many scientists say that the adult cells are not as versatile as those from embryos, but antiabortion groups say that the full promise of adult cells should be explored before embryo cells are considered.