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Friday, 10 August, 2001, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
Bush facing stem cell storm
President Bush
Mr Bush is struggling to appease both sides
By US affairs analyst Ben Wright

The decision by President Bush to allow a limited level of stem cell research using federal funds is now being harvested for its political meaning.

For an anti-abortion Republican president to sanction the destruction of embryos is a politically charged decision that may have important reverberations.

human embryo
Mr Bush did not support the use of embryos left over after IVF
But the interests involved do not divide neatly along traditional lines and the issue is much more complicated than left against right, religion against science.

While Congressional Democrats have been enthusiastic advocates for such funding, they have been joined in their campaign by some unlikely allies.

Prominent anti-abortion Republican politicians such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Gordon Smith also support stem cell research and both lobbied Mr Bush to permit federal funding for research because of the embryonic cells' potential in fighting disease.

Testimonies

Another prominent supporter of research is Republican Tommy Thompson, who heads the Department of Health and Human Services.

Ken Conner from the US Family Research Council
Stem cell research has aroused fierce passions in America
Then there are the testimonies from those across the political spectrum who are affected by the illnesses that stem cell research could assist.

The Alzheimer's disease suffered by former president Ronald Reagan is just one disease that could perhaps be successfully tackled by stem cell research.

But many on the religious right are deeply opposed to such research.

Republicans such as House members Dick Armey and Tom DeLay maintain that in their opinion, stem cell research is simply another form of abortion.

Catholic pressure

Mr Bush was also under pressure from the Catholic church. When the president visited Castel Gandolfo in July, the Pope made clear his objection to stem cell research:

Pope John Paul II
The Pope: Stem cell research "violates human life"
"A free and virtuous society which America aspires to be must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage of conception until natural death," the Pope said.

Perhaps it was the fracture in the anti-abortion wing of the Republican Party over this issue that offered Mr Bush enough room to make the decision he did.

If so, the president's decision could be seen as a deliberate move to reassure moderate Republicans and American voters that he is more than just a dogmatic conservative.

The defection of Senator James Jeffords in May starkly exposed the gap between moderate and conservative Republicans.

Pre-election rhetoric

Much of Mr Bush's pre-election rhetoric of bipartisanship and inclusiveness has been at odds with his approach to policies on energy, tax, missile defence and the environment.

White House spokesman Scott McLellan
Scott McLellan said the decision was not based on poll readings
An early policy for the social right was banning the use of federal funds at family planning centres abroad, an executive order that angered Democrats and women's rights groups.

Mr Bush might now feel he has done enough to satisfy his electoral base and needs instead to talk the politics of moderation, particularly considering the fragility of his electoral mandate.

The president might also have been reassured by poll numbers that suggest a majority of Americans approve of federal funding for stem cell research, with even a majority of American Catholics approving of such research.

But Mr Bush has been adamant that the decision was not based on poll readings or political calculations, a point re-iterated by White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

"The president does not make decisions by polls" he said, insisting that President Bush had taken advice from many experts across the spectrum of opinion during his months of deliberation.

Disappointment

But President Bush may have in fact ended up disappointing everyone.


[President Bush has done] the bare minimum in order to try and publicly posture himself with the majority of the Americans

Richard Gephardt, House Minority Leader
He has broken rank on an issue dear to many Republican hearts and some may now be questioning whether this is the sort of president they worked so hard to get elected last year.

Mr Bush has also disappointed many on the left and in the scientific community by placing strict limits on the research.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt criticised the move, saying that President Bush had done "the bare minimum in order to try and publicly posture himself with the majority of the Americans."

However, for a president whom the majority of Americans perceive to be too close to the interests of business, Thursday's decision may be viewed as an important demonstration of character, the product of instinct and emotion rather than favour and political calculation.

See also:

10 Aug 01 | Business
Companies cheer Bush stem cell move
10 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Stem cells: Q & A
17 Feb 01 | San Francisco
Stem cell hope for Parkinson's
07 Sep 00 | Festival of science
Stem cell injection for stroke on the way
19 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Stem cells promise liver repair
02 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Stem cells grown from dead bodies
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