Bush deliberates on stem cell research decision

WASHINGTON, Los Angeles Times

President Bush was deep into a recent discussion on Medicare with members of Congress when he abruptly began musing about stem cell research. “The subject was clearly on his mind,” recalled Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee.

The president unexpectedly brought up the matter again Wednesday afternoon at the end of a meeting with physicians on the patients’ bill of rights.

Bush is famous for his quick executive decisions and abhorrence of long briefings or memos.

But as he confronts the most politically sensitive decision of his presidency, Bush is agonizing to an unusual degree.

Faced with a decision over whether to allow federal funding for research using stem cells from human embryos, the president finds himself caught between the unyielding opposition of social conservatives, who say embryo research is immoral, and the heart-rending pleas of people with diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, that might be cured through such research.

Bush is consulting widely. He is soaking up information, opinions and advice — and, above all, taking his time trying to forge a compromise.

This Hamlet-like approach is a striking departure for a man who, as governor of Texas, spent just 15 minutes reviewing a scheduled execution.

“The president is really putting a lot of thought into it,” marveled Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, who only a month ago publicly chastised Bush for not focusing on details of issues that came across his desk.

This week alone, Bush has met with representatives of various disease organizations, anti-abortion groups and leading bioethicists, according to the White House. He is said to be truly conflicted, in part because many pro-life voices — including former Florida Sen. Connie Mack and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch — are urging him to put science first.

Among people with whom Bush has discussed the issue are Senate GOP leader Trent Lott, R-Mississipi, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania. At the same time, former first lady Nancy Reagan also has weighed in, discreetly sending word from California to Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, that she favors funding.

In his uncharacteristic preoccupation, the president has come to epitomize society’s quandary over a growing array of bioethical dilemmas thrust upon decision-makers by breakthrough science.

“It is a very complicated and nuanced decision, and it’s something the president is approaching in a very thoughtful and deliberative fashion,” said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “The president views this as … a matter that involves very sensitive and important issues that involve questions that are fundamental about life, about preserving life with science on the other hand.”