Bush administration split on stem cell research

WASHINGTON, The Washington Post

The Bush administration is deeply divided over whether to fund experimentation on cells from human embryos, a controversial new area of research that defies traditional allegiances in the abortion debate, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Monday.

Despite the complex and polarized nature of the debate, Thompson expressed confidence that a compromise could be reached within the next few weeks — and if President Bush asks, he is prepared to make the final call.

“If I had my personal druthers, sure I’d make the decision,” Thompson said during a luncheon interview with editors and reporters of the Washington Post. “I’m ready to make the decision if he asks me.”

Many scientists believe embryonic stem cells will lead to groundbreaking treatments for a wide variety of diseases, including juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. Under guidelines written by the Clinton administration but not yet implemented, federally funded researchers may not destroy embryos but may conduct experiments on cells that privately funded researchers have retrieved from embryos.

The Bush administration suspended those guidelines saying it wants to review the scientific and ethical implications of the work since embryos are destroyed when the cells are retrieved. The president has said he supports federal funding of research on similar cells obtained from adults, but some scientists question whether those cells have the same therapeutic potential as embryonic cells.

“You have a lot of people touting one or the other,” Thompson said. “But there has not been the basic, pure scientific review as to whether or not one is better than another.”

As governor of Wisconsin, Thompson praised the discoverer of human embryonic stem cells, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin. However, Thompson acknowledged Monday that when it comes to crafting national policy ethical and political questions loom large.

“Hopefully we’ll come up with a decision that’s going to allow for the continuation of research, which is very important, and at the same time take into consideration the legal and the ethical questions that have to be considered,” he said.

Thompson attributed part of the delay to Bush’s request for more information.

“He is looking to find a way that will be unifying rather than divisive,” he said.

But unity has been elusive. Asked directly whether there were “strong political cross pressures” within the White House, Thompson replied:”There is; you’re right.”