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President Bush Reaches a Decision on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Aired August 9, 2001 - 18:19   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We bring you the very latest we have regarding the president's decision on stem cell research. To Washington, CNN's White House correspondent John King. John, what do you have for us?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, two sources known to be involved in the president's deliberations are now telling CNN he has settled on a compromise that allows federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in limited cases. We should note that other senior officials involved in these discussions are stressing to us that Mr. Bush has sworn his aides to secrecy and they are warning us, in the words of one of these top officials, quote: "Against listening to people who say they know what the decision is."

But we have spoken over the past several hours with two sources known to be involved in these discussions who tell us the president will endorse limited federal funding. Now, that would be a turnabout for the president, and he would be supporting a compromise along the lines, we're told, endorsed by his Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Senator Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, a heart transplant doctor before he came to Congress.

Now, we're told that Mr. Bush has grappled with this decision for two months, and that one of these sources said he would give, quote, "a limited blessing" to embryonic stem cell research, consistent with the approach favored by Frist and Thompson. Now, we know that approach to include this: limited federal funding for stem cell research only on embryos already at fertility clinics, leftover embryos that otherwise would be discarded and only with the donor's position (sic).

We're told the president is against creating embryos just for the purpose of medical research, he is against cloning embryos, using cloning technology to create embryos for medical research, but we are told by two sources who we know to be involved in these deliberations that the president tonight in a nationally televised address from his ranch in Texas will endorse limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in limited cases.

And again, we must also add, other senior administration officials telling us fewer than 10 people are aware of this decision, they are cautioning us against believing what we hear, but these two sources we are speaking to, we do know have been involved in the president's deliberations in recent weeks -- Bill.

HEMMER: John, clarify the word "limited." Are we talking about money for its funding, or are we talking about a limited number of embryos to use in this particular research?

KING: Details are very scarce, but limited in the sense that the president is not going to endorse, we are told, any blanket research on embryonic stem cells.

The president, we are told by these two sources involved in the deliberations, has been talking about a proposal in which you would allow federal funding on embryos that are at fertility clinics, that were taken for the purpose of fertility but were not used and are now left over and would only be discarded if they were not used.

So, on a limited number of embryos, we are told -- and again, we are waiting official word from the president -- that he will come out in favor of limited embryonic stem cell research.

HEMMER: John, also, have your sources told you about any expression of concern given those who oppose any type of research in embryos, how will that tightrope be walked politically?

KING: Well, certainly we know the president has grappled with this decision not only in private but in public. He has called it a very difficult collision between moral concerns, ethical concerns and science. We know in the president's speech tonight he hopes to lay out how difficult it was for him to make this decision himself, address and give respect to all sides of this debate. It's not really a two-sided debate, it's much more complicated than that.

And we also know that the White House is preparing a very aggressive public campaign to explain not only the details of the president's decision but how he came about it over the past months, meeting with dozens of officials -- leaders of the Catholic church, medical ethicists, medical researchers, people who are firmly for this research, people who are firmly against it, and debating with his own staff, some of whom are for this research, some firmly against it as well.

The president has called this the most difficult decision of his young presidency. He will explain it to the American people tonight, and then he and the administration will continue that effort in the days and weeks ahead.

HEMMER: Also, John, any indication given as to why this decision was made at this time? Kelly Wallace indicating that it was just yesterday that he finalized that decision with the clarification given from your sources?

KING: Our sources are simply saying the president has settled on his decision in recent days, and then just yesterday told aides he wanted to announce it today, many of those aides speculating that the president just simply grew tired of being asked about this every day by reporters when he went out golfing on his vacation. But they're also making the case that the president understands -- while he insists this is not a political decision, that politics did not factor into his final decision, that he understands this is a political debate, and a moral and ethical debate now going on across the country, and that once he settled on his decision and grew comfortable with it, he thought it was time to explain it to the American people.

HEMMER: All right. John King in Washington. John, we'll check in later with you.

In the meantime, though, let's talk about the science of this decision. Medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen now is with us. If indeed that's the case that John and I have just been talking about, what's the impact on this issue within the world of science, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, I think the first immediate impact would be that scientists will be dancing in their laboratories. This is pretty much exactly what they wanted.

Let's use an example here. There is stem cell science that shows that when rats have injuries like Christopher Reeve, the same kind of spinal cord injury -- and here we see these rats. Look at this little guy, really can't walk very well, and it's because his hind legs have been paralyzed -- same kind of injury as Christopher Reeve.

However, when they then gave him a treatment with embryonic stem cells, you can see he now can walk. Pretty simple. Now, will that happen to Christopher Reeve? Will people with spinal cord injuries be able to walk as well as these mice? Who knows. It may never work in human beings.

But now, they would have -- scientists say that if they have federal funding, they could go forth and try to figure it out, they can continue on with their animal experiments and then go to human experiments to see if that would work.

They said if this was just private funding, as it's been up until now, that the progress would just be at a snail's pace. Most research that's done in this country is done with federal funding. The kind of breakthroughs that you hear about in heart disease or cancer -- those are usually done with some form of federal funding.

HEMMER: So what you're saying then, with federal funding you get more man power and you get more money to throw at a certain project.

COHEN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the amount of money that the NIH has to spend on anything, really, just dwarfs any other source of funding, or really most sources of funding even put together. I mean, scientists from other countries are hoping that there's U.S. federal funding for stem cells because it helps their research. It will then advance American scientists and they can then build off of that research. So it's really considered the golden egg, basically, in medical science funding.

HEMMER: Elizabeth, as we wade through this science, what kind of a time frame has been given by leading scientists on this issue?

COHEN: You know what, leading scientists are really too smart to give time frames. They just don't know. Again, this is something which has only panned out in animals so far.

And in fact, even Senator Frist -- he's the only doctor in the Senate -- he supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and he said on the floor of the Senate, "You know what? I don't want to overpromise this. I don't want it oversold. This may not turn out to be the incredible medical revolution that we think, but then again it might be."

HEMMER: Years or decades, in a short answer?

COHEN: I would say years toward some limited treatments. But as far as talking about a cure, a decade or two, maybe.

HEMMER: See you later tonight, OK, Elizabeth? Many thanks. Elizabeth Cohen, our medical correspondent. Been on this story from the very beginning.

Now to Washington again, and Bill Schneider, who is with us right now. Correction now, in Los Angeles, on the West Coast.

Bill, we talked briefly with John King about the political implications involved. How do you see the sides coming down on this issue, given what we've just learned through John King?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this is a defining moment for the Bush presidency, because he's defining himself, really, if he makes the decision that John describes, which is a compromise decision but coming down in favor of stem cell research. He's defining himself as a different kind of Republican -- not a captive of the antiabortion constituency which was saying, over and over again, "We will brook no compromise. There's only one correct decision."

He's showing that he thinks for himself, that he's nobody's front man and that he can make up his mind thoughtfully on this issue.

HEMMER: And we were talking with Jonathan Karl just about 25 minutes ago. For those in the House who sent this memo about five weeks ago, strongly urging the president not to go forward in this area, how is the compromise reached? How does the relationship go forward between these members of Congress and the White House?

SCHNEIDER: He's their president and they're going to be very cautious. They will express, I'm sure, disappointment in his decision. Some of them may try to sponsor some legislation to, if not reverse it, at least limit the implications of the decision.

But he's the president and I think they will respect his decision. There will be some in the religious community, in the antiabortion community, who will speak out and claim that he violated his pledge, that he's like his father, who violated his no new taxes pledge. I think that analogy is incorrect. And I think that Bush may look better politically for doing this, because he looks like he's more in the mainstream.

HEMMER: Got it. Bill Schneider in L.A. See you later tonight, Bill. Thanks.

Back to Washington, quickly. Again, CNN White House correspondent John King back with us again. The headline, again, through your sources is what, John?

KING: The headline, Bill: Two sources known to be involved in President Bush's months-long-now deliberation on this issue telling CNN he has settled on a compromise that will allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in limited cases. Now, senior aides saying the president has sworn them to secrecy; they're saying we shouldn't believe the sources we hear, but we do know these two deeply involved in these deliberations these past few months.

They say the president will endorse federal funding for research on embryonic stem cell in cases -- limited cases, in which those embryos are already at fertility clinics. They've been taken out for fertility purposes or are left over and would otherwise be discarded. The president at his ranch in Crawford, Texas preparing to address the American people on this decision tonight. A defining moment for the Bush presidency and test, now, of his relations with the Republican right.

HEMMER: We'll watch that throughout the night, John. John King in Washington. Again, we'll have that decision for you from the ranch in Crawford, Texas. President Bush will make that decision and that announcement public 9:00 Eastern Time, and certainly here on CNN we will have live coverage of the stem cell announcement, 9:00 Eastern, 6:00 on the West Coast.



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