Catholics shift on stem cells

WASHINGTON, Los Angeles Times

In a development that could help President Bush navigate one of the thorniest issues of his administration, several leading conservative Catholic intellectuals have told the White House they are open to a plan that would allow the government to fund certain medical experiments that use stem cells from human embryos.

Bush has said he will decide soon on whether to fund embryo-cell research, which many scientists believe will lead to new treatments for a range of diseases. By backing the research, Bush might win favor with millions of patients. But he would anger anti-abortion groups and most Catholic leaders, who have said there is no scenario in which government funding for the research would be morally acceptable.

The issue is especially tricky for Bush, because his chief political strategist believes Catholic voters will play a pivotal role in the next presidential election. Choosing between medical patients and abortion opponents puts Bush “in a no-win situation,” said Gov. Tom Ridge, R-Pennsylvania.

Now, however, three conservative Catholics who advise the White House are saying a compromise may be possible. Depending on how the details shape up, these opinion leaders may publicly offer arguments for why some funding of embryo experiments is morally acceptable, and help Bush win support for the policy among Catholic leaders and voters.

The Catholic advisers are focusing in particular on one option, now under discussion among White House aides, in which the government would pay only for research that used existing stem cells that scientists have already isolated from embryos. Any experiment that caused the destruction of additional embryos to obtain new cells would be ineligible for federal funds.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents the church in the United States, have specifically rejected this idea, saying it would make the government complicit in embryo destruction. But one of the nation’s leading Catholic thinkers on abortion issues is now offering a different view. “I can imagine circumstances in which this would not only be politically acceptable, but could be a morally justified policy,” said Robert P. George, a moral philosopher at Princeton University, who participates in a weekly, Thursday morning telephone conference of Catholic intellectuals that often includes White House staff.

Another participant in the weekly calls, the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, who leads a Michigan-based ethics think tank, said he has told the White House that the compromise might be regarded as acceptable, and consistent with church teachings, if it ensured that the government never pays for the destruction of another embryo.

“I am open to it,” said Deal W. Hudson, editor and publisher of Crisis, a Catholic magazine. While the compromise would be “a victory for those who want to use embryonic stem cells, it can also be seen as a victory for the pro-life side,” Hudson said, “because it ensures, for the time being, that there is no more government support for the destruction of embryos for their stem cells.”

The stem cell issue came up on the conference call Thursday, said the Rev. Sirico, but he would not give details. The Catholic advisers have seen no formal proposal and have not endorsed any.

Still, the comments from the three advisers suggest there is more diversity among conservative Catholic leaders on the stem cell issue than has previously appeared in public debate. If Bush moves in any way to support embryo-cell research, it will be crucial to win the support of at least some conservative Catholic leaders, George said. “Then they could say there’s a range of opinion, and that this issue is not like abortion or euthanasia,” which are uniformly condemned by church leaders and ethicists.