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Bush treads too cautiously in stem-cell decision



Published: Mon, August 13, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The best that can be said for President George Bush's long-awaited decision on stem-cell research is at least he didn't ban it outright. But the restrictions he placed on the research that will qualify for federal funding show that he chose to follow a path of political expediency rather than lead this nation to the forefront of the battle against disease.

Neither supporters of a total ban nor those who would prefer fewer restrictions on the potentially life-preserving studies are happy. Yet both fear Bush has cracked open a door that their opponents will one day march through.

In Bush's narrowly drawn decision, he specified that any research be limited to stem cells that had been removed from embryos that were surplus or abandoned by couples at fertility clinics and had already been destroyed, that the donors gave consent and had not been paid for the donation.

We must ask why those same standards could not have been applied to cells from any of the hundred thousand frozen embryos in fertility clinics around the country now that will be destroyed regardless and whose donors would willingly give consent and would also decline payment.

Questionable numbers: In his speech before the nation Thursday night, Bush announced that there were more than 60 embryonic cell lines around the world to which federally funded scientists could have access. Later, however, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson admitted that the United States has no contracts with the private and public researchers who own the lines. Nor, apparently, is it known whether the cells would even be appropriate for research undertaken in this country or how it could be proved that foreign stem cells had not been derived from new embryos.

Moreover, stem-cell researchers said they were surprised at Bush's comment that there were more than 60 stem cell lines, with most agreeing they knew of only a dozen or fewer lines that would meet strict guidelines of National Institutes of Health. Dr. Paul Berg, a Stanford University Nobel laureate, said, & quot;The most anybody I've talked to is aware of is probably 10 or less, & quot; he said.

And of course, if private research centers or those in other nations are able to achieve technological victories without the restrictions faced by American scientists, U.S. government-funded researchers will not be able to benefit from those advances.

But even as scientists have to be disappointed, Catholic Church leaders were equally dismayed, but for the opposite reason. & quot;The trade-off he has announced is morally unacceptable, & quot; said a statement from Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The only people who appear happy with Bush's decision are those conservatives who see little political damage resulting from the president's neither-here-nor-there position.




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