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Politics, science, morality of stem cell issue

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush is expected to decide soon whether he will allow federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. To help him make his decision, he has commissioned reports from several groups, and the issue is being debated in a Senate hearing. We asked CNN's Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash to take a closer look at the controversy.

Q: What's President Bush's position on the stem-cell debate?

A: Bush has not taken an official position, and it is that very decision that has put a spotlight on the debate. As a candidate, Bush said he was opposed to using taxpayer money for studies using human embryos. Now, in the White House, he is weighing very complicated bioethical, medical and political factors to determine whether to block the funding.

Q: The president seems to be trying to find a compromise. Is he in a tough spot politically with this issue?

A: Bush is in a very tough spot politically. On the one hand, you have conservatives in his party who believe using human embryos for research is immoral and that funding those studies with taxpayer dollars is unacceptable. Three House GOP leaders and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott are pressuring Bush by urging him to block federal funding of embryonic research, saying the White House should instead focus on adult stem cell studies.

On the other hand, because of the studies' potential to find cures for diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, Bush is being urged to allow federal funding for the research by such anti-abortion political figures as Nancy Reagan, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, and now the very influential Bill Frist, R-Tennessee.

Q: What is the effect of Frist's announcement of his support for the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research?

A: Frist's announcement Wednesday in support of federal funding for embryonic stem cell studies will have a huge impact on the debate and perhaps on Bush's decision. Frist was a top heart and lung transplant surgeon before joining Congress, and as the only physician in the Senate he is the GOP "go-to" man for all issues relating to health care policy.

The Tennessee Republican is a key political ally of Bush. Frist was Bush's liaison to the Senate during his presidential campaign and is in charge of the committee to elect Republicans to the Senate. On medical policy he is arguably the most influential Republican in the country. Just last month Frist led the charge for the White House on patients' rights legislation.

Although Frist's office and the White House said the Tennessee senator's announcement was not coordinated, he has so much influence as a doctor steeped in science and as an anti-abortion lawmaker that he hopes, and most believe, that his opinion will sway Bush.

Q: What do conservatives say about the influence of Frist's announcement?

A: Conservatives who have been fighting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research concede Frist's announcement was a major blow to their cause. Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, both of whom consider such research to be the taking of a human life, admit Frist's support makes their fight much harder, if not nearly impossible.

Why? Because conservatives who have been afraid to come out in favor of funding such research now have the political cover do to so because of the weight Frist carries on this issue.

Q: What did Frist say in announcing his support for the research?

A: Part of the reason Frist's decision has such an impact is because of the detailed conditions put on his support for the controversial studies. The Tennessee Republican issued 10 principles he said must go hand-in-hand with any taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research. Those conditions, meant as a compromise approach, are set to allay many of the ethical and moral concerns people have with using human embryos for research.

Frist's principles include banning human cloning and allowing taxpayer dollars for research only on embryos created for in-vitro fertilization and not from abortions. The only way the embryos can be used, according to Frist's proposed guidelines, would be if donors have already decided to discard them and have approved their use in research.

The guidelines are intended to direct use of the embryos in the most moral way possible so researchers can find key information that could provide remedies for serious disease.

Q: Are conservatives totally opposed to embryonic stem cell research? And how much influence do these conservatives have with the hard-liners who oppose such research?

A: Most conservatives who oppose such research say it is unnecessary to take what they consider human life when there are other avenues of study available, such as adult stem cell research. GOP leaders in the House and Senate are advocating putting more federal dollars into the exploration of using adult stem cells to fight disease, pointing to recent studies that show both avenues have the potential for scientific breakthroughs.

The "hard-liners" could have a major influence on conservative lawmakers and on Bush politically. There are also core conservatives who believe destroying human life in any way, even if it means potentially helping another human being, is immoral. They make up a good portion of the GOP base, and many in the party fear offending them. All these combine to make Bush's decision so tough. Q: Could this debate affect other issues in Congress in the way conservatives and liberals, for example, might align themselves with the president?

A: The debate over embryonic stem cell research blurs the conventional lines between conservatives and liberals. Polls show Americans who consider themselves conservatives are split right down the middle on whether they support stem cell research, and some pro-choice Americans actually oppose embryonic stem cell research.

Because this issue is such a nuanced ethical and moral question -- far more so than the debate over abortion -- most believe it is unlikely to affect alignment on other issues. However, if Bush decides to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, he could face backlash from the conservative wing in his party, which includes most of the House and Senate leadership.

• NIH: News: Stem Cell Information
• Stem Cells: A Primer, National Institutes of Health, May 2000
• Stem Cell Research & Applications

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