Facebook Twitter

Bush tussles with stem-cell decision

SHARE Bush tussles with stem-cell decision

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — As President Bush inches closer to a decision about federal support for embryonic stem-cell research, he is surrounded by reminders — in Republican circles, in his White House and even in his family's past — of the lives diminished by afflictions that the research might help fight.

A sister, Robin, died of leukemia at age 3. The Republican Party's most beloved living hero, former President Ronald Reagan, is wasting away with Alzheimer's disease.

And the father of Andrew H. Card Jr., Bush's chief of staff, battled Parkinson's disease until his death in 1994. Parkinson's is among the diseases for which treatment could perhaps be advanced the most by the research.

Several people who know Card, including two administration officials, said his father's experience helped shape Card's view about research using cells from human embryos, which they said he favored. One official said he was certain that Card, who was at some of the president's White House discussions about the issue, had shared his feelings with the president.

But other officials and Bush advisers outside the White House said that Card had largely kept his feelings to himself. Card, through a White House spokesman, declined a request for an interview.

Card's family story, like Reagan's illness and many other examples of suffering in Bush's immediate and extended circles, underscores the deeply personal nature of the debate over federal support for the research. It also suggests that Bush's deliberations, no matter what decision they yield, are being influenced by more than political ideology and abstract morality.

"It's one of the things that makes it so difficult," one of Bush's aides said. Like other aides, this one said that the White House had been bombarded by passionate pleas from people arguing for or against the research — and that the issue had been the most volatile one Bush had encountered since taking office.

But in this case, the official said, the appeals are coming not just from advocates on each side of the issue. They are sometimes coming from friends or acquaintances who have watched someone suffer from Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, juvenile diabetes or a number of other illnesses and who have become fervent proponents of the research for that reason.

"There has been an awful lot of traffic on this — tons," the aide said.

Daniel Perry, the executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, an advocacy group that supports research using embryonic stem cells, said that one member of his organization's board was friendly with Vice President Dick Cheney and went fishing with Cheney in Montana a month ago. The board member, whom Perry would not identify, used the opportunity to make his case for the research.

Cheney "got an earful," Perry said.

Kenneth M. Duberstein, a chief of staff for Reagan, has made it publicly clear — and thus clear to Bush — that many of Reagan's advisers and friends want the research to go forward.

Duberstein's comments also seemed to signal to Bush that invoking Reagan's name would be a wise and effective way to explain a decision to permit the research to religious conservatives, many of whom oppose it but revere the former president.

"It's not a political decision," Duberstein said. "It's the right decision. This could make a difference for many people bedeviled by the same disease as our beloved Ronald Reagan. Old Reagan hands would applaud."

These sorts of testimonials and points of reference have made a decision more difficult and complicated for Bush, who is also receiving a deluge of phone calls and letters from some Roman Catholics and religious conservatives. These people contend that using embryos for research is sanctioning the destruction of life and puts the country on a slippery slope that could lead to an even more permissive approach to abortion.

"On the passion meter, this is as high as it gets," one administration official said.

Administration officials said that Bush had agonized over what to do. One said that for several weeks Bush had brought the issue up almost daily, even in meetings not directly related to the topic.

"It's come up in economic policy meetings," the official said. "He says, 'Hold on,' and we get back into stem cell. He has talked about the issue an awful lot. He has been studying this issue comprehensively."

And yet, several aides said, Bush has not given clear signals about what he plans to do. One aide said that Bush concluded a recent meeting on the subject by saying, "I'll make up my mind when I make up my mind — and then I'll tell you."