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President Bush Takes a Position on Stem Cell Research

Aired August 9, 2001 - 22:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: Now, a CNN special report, "Stem Cell: the Decision." President Bush says no, and yes.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We should allow federal funds to be used in research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made.


ANNOUNCER: But the ethical debate will not go away.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These embryos are the earliest stages of human life.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is so much promise in this research in terms of providing life-giving cures.


ANNOUNCER: "Stem Cell: the Decision," with Bill Hemmer at the CNN center in Atlanta.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening. It's a decision President Bush felt was so important he called the attention of the country together in a nationwide address. Tonight, Mr. Bush says federal dollars can be used in the research of embryonic stem cells, but the sources of these stem cells is very limited.

And we will talk more about the science in a moment, but first tonight the politics. To the White House and CNN's John King. John, tell us this: what is different on this issue now after this decision and announcement was given just an hour ago?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, the White House would say that this announcement is consistent with what the president said during the campaign about stem cell research, but certainly the president has offered more details on his view, more details he says after several months of grappling with a very difficult moral, ethical and political question.

And remember tonight, the president's word is not the last word. This is a debate that now will have ramifications throughout the medical and scientific research community, and throughout the United States Congress as well.


KING (voice-over): The Bush compromise would allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research only in limited cases, on existing stem cell lines, meaning specimens already removed from human embryos.

BUSH: This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research, without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.

KING: The president rejected calls that he go farther. Many scientists and some top White House advisers favored allowing federally-funded research on stem cells from embryos left over at fertility clinics that are destined to be discarded. The president promised his administration would be aggressive in promoting research on stem cells from other sources, including adults, the placenta and umbilical cords.

And he said he would name a presidential commission to monitor progress and set strict ethical guidelines for the research.

Mr. Bush consulted with dozens of experts over the past few months, and said he found no consensus on whether embryos are lives or potential lives, and no consensus on the promise of the research.

BUSH: As we go forward, I hope we will always be guided by both intellect and heart, by both our capabilities and our conscience. I have made this decision with great care, and I pray it is the right one.

KING: As the president spoke to the nation, the White House began an aggressive campaign to sell his decision to lawmakers and interest groups with competing positions. The administration stressed the compromise was, in its view, consistent with a letter the president wrote back in May, when he said, quote: "I oppose federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying living human embryos."


KING: Now, that campaign continuing tonight, senior administration officials taking to the airwaves, calling concerned lawmakers in the United States Congress, members of interest groups on both sides of this debate, the public relations campaign selling the president's decision just beginning here. The White House, though, is saying it is satisfied with initial reaction, even many of those, say, like Mary Tyler Moore, who has supported this research for diabetes and other diseases, saying that while they don't believe the president's decision went as far as they would have liked, they are impressed with the care and the time the president took to make this decision, the White House saying it believes so far the reaction quite favorable -- Bill.

HEMMER: And John, quickly here, as also coming from the White House that he anguished quite a bit over this, as you referred to in your story, talking with many people from many different lines of work -- curious to know why this decision was made at this time?

KING: Well, as the president said in his speech, the more you consider this issue, the more you study it, the more you go back and forth, the more you get confused, the more you realize there is no consensus. The administration was faced with dealing with Clinton administration guidelines that were issued for the National Institutes of Health.

There is an appropriations process about to begin in the Congress, as lawmakers appropriate money for medical research. They have to decide the guidelines.

Most of all, though, aides say once the president made his decision, he wanted to sleep on it a few nights and then announce it to the American people.

HEMMER: And quickly, John, is there a line of friction the White House fears the most on this decision tonight?

KING: No, they know there will be a debate in Congress, many Democrats already say this does not go far enough and that they will seek to have broader stem cell research, the administration bracing for that debate, and some criticism from those in the pro-life, the anti-abortion community, who say any such research is a violation of the sanctity of human life, but the administration believing this is the right compromise for now, this debate though just beginning.

HEMMER: Good work tonight, John. John King at the White House for us tonight.

As John mentioned, Congress will have its say, and for weeks lawmakers have lobbied the White House in hopes of winning their case. It has been a hot issue for both houses of Congress, and what's being felt tonight on Capitol Hill? CNN's Jonathan Karl. Much reaction thus far, Jonathan?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Reaction coming quite quickly, Bill. First, on "LARRY KING LIVE," just a short while ago, we saw the two Republicans senators that have been key to this debate, one on each side of the issue -- first, Senator Orrin Hatch, who had supported the idea of embryonic stem cell decision -- stem cell research, had this to say about the decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE") SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: I think it's right decision, because what he has done is he has come down on the side of facilitating life and using these cells, which would have been discarded anyway, for purposes that might alleviate the pain and suffering of upward of 125 million people in this country who have one or more of these maladies and might be helped by embryonic stem cell research.


KARL: But Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who had led the battle against stem cell research, was somewhat disappointed by the president's decision. This is what he said.


SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), KANSAS: One area that I'm concerned about is that he is opening this field of being able to say that OK, we are going to look at some of these, and the use of some embryonic stem cells for research, because it goes into the very fundamental of what is the young human.


KARL: Now, about 10 minutes before the president's speech, Karl Rove, his senior adviser on this issue, reached out to the five leading conservative Republicans on this issue opposed to any kind of embryonic stem cell research. He had a conference call 10 minutes before the speech, between -- with Sam Brownback on line that you just heard from, and also with Senator Rick Santorum and three conservative members of the House -- Chris Smith, Dave Weldon and Joe Pitts.

Karl Rove essentially told them what the president's decision will be. All five, I'm told, expressed disappointment in the president's decision. In words of one: "I think the president has found the best possible compromise, but I just don't think this is the kind of issue you can compromise on." So, some disappointment and some effort by the White House to reach out in advance of this speech and to do some pre-damage control.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, you have had an interesting variation in response. First, from the Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, generally somewhat supportive of the president's decision. He put out a statement that reads in part: "I am heartened by President Bush's announcement that he intends to support federal funding for limited stem cell research." He said he respects the president's decision, although he went on to say that: "Some will be concerned that limiting it to existing stem cell lines will be too limiting," and predicted that the Senate will want to take this issue up in the fall.

But a much different reaction from two other Democratic leaders up here on Capitol Hill. The first from Representative Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House, who said in part: "Once again, the president has done the bare minimum in order to try to publicly posture himself with the majority of Americans." And then, from Senator John Kerry. He said: "Compassionate conservatism could have meant live-saving treatments for those suffering from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Instead, it appears to me he's using words of compassion to mask efforts to keep a campaign promise to conservatives."

So, Bill, that's the word up here on Capitol Hill.

HEMMER: And clearly not the last word either, Jonathan. Jonathan Karl from Washington tonight, thank you.

Clearly, this decision is the biggest of President Bush's young administration. Some say, though, they believe this issue could define his entire presidency. Is that an overstatement? CNN's Bill Schneider analyzes this and more tonight live in L.A..

Bill, you believe it does define his presidency. Tell us why.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think the president, by reaching this compromise in a thoughtful and principled manner has impressed the American people that he is open, that he's flexible, that he is not a man who sticks by convictions that maybe don't meet urgent national priorities.

And I think the public is going to be impressed by the manner, the sincere moral grappling that the president did have with this issue. And in fact, the more the conservatives claim that the decision makes them a bit uncomfortable, the better the president will look to most Americans, as someone who is willing to risk offending his base in order to meet different national needs.

The problem is in the future. What will happen if scientists and medical researchers and medical advocates begin to complain that this decision is far too limiting? Not politicians, but medical researchers, scientists, people who are concerned about medical progress. Will they say that limiting it to the strains of human embryos that have already been found in fertility clinics, that that's far too limiting and that it caters far too much to his religious base? If their complains are loud and clear, we may find that the president's open and flexible image will begin to change.

HEMMER: We have been taking some polling over the past week, Bill, what are we finding from Americans on this issue?

SCHNEIDER: We are finding that the president's decision was very much in line with public opinion, even though he said polls had nothing to do with it. Most Americans do support research on embryos created fertility clinics, but unused to develop babies. The president said yes to that but only if the embryos were previously created. The public is going to have to think about that.

Most do not support research on embryos created in the laboratory and the president opposes that. Very few people support research using embryos created by cloning. The president was totally opposed to that. This was a tough decision for the president, and it is a tough decision for the American public. Most Americans believe that research using human embryos, is morally wrong, but an even larger majority, you see here 69 percent, also believe that it is medically necessary.

Medical in necessity in this case overrides the moral qualms, as it did with the president.

HEMMER: The president knew clearly everyone would not be made happy by his decision. Who is likely to be ticked off after this, Bill?

SCHNEIDER: Well, in a sense, both sides are a little bit ticked off. The question is, who is going to complain the loudest. My guess is because he is a Republican president who went very far to satisfy the concerns of his conservative base, who are already divided on the issue, I think conservatives can live with this. Most of them can. The question you have to raise is, will the scientific community come out and say, well it is a start, and we can make progress from here, so we are not going complain too loudly.

Or are they going to say, this is far too limiting. It puts restrictions on research materials that ought to be more widely available. And we are not going to be able to make progress. It puts us in shackles. If those complaints start coming out from the scientific community, then the president could have a big problem on his hands and this debate will continue.

HEMMER: Something to watch. Bill Schneider from L.A. Thank you, Bill.

Coming up at the bottom of the hour, a special edition of "GREENFIELD AT LARGE." From New York City tonight, here's Jeff with us now and Jeff, curious to know from you, what struck you in the president's address just about an hour and 15 minutes ago?

JEFF GREENFIELD, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the first thing that struck me was right in line with what Bill was saying. So much of the speech, in fact, almost 90 percent of it was really showing you the pros, and cons of the different points of view. And I think it was very much an effort to say, look I have thought carefully about this. I have weighed this, I have taken this very seriously. and I understand this issue in a way that some of my critics would have doubted that I did.

Because he was placing almost equal emphasis on the scientific possibilities of stem-cell research and the need for reverence for life and the need not to play God. The reference to "Brave New World," the Aldous Huxley novel that really imagined test tube babies was, I thought, the most striking part of the speech because he was referencing some of the primal fears that a lot of people have about things like cloning, and playing God.

So it was a strikingly careful speech, designed to show that the president was very, very serious about this decision.

HEMMER: We'll see you again in about 17 minutes. Who is on the program tonight, Jeff? GREENFIELD: We've got a leading professor who is going to be talking about the scientific view. We've got a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Then we've got two pro-life Republicans who may have different views on this: former Gingrich press aid Tony Blankley, and former ambassador, Alan Keyes.

HEMMER: "GREENFIELD AT LARGE" 17 minutes away. See you then, Jeff, thank you very much.

At this time also we are going to take you back to the White House. Tommy Thompson, the Health And Human Services secretary joining us live who was not involved strictly within the decision making on this tonight but, indeed he is close to this issue.

Secretary Thompson, good evening to you.

TOMMY THOMPSON, HHS SECRETARY: Good evening, how are you?

HEMMER: I'm doing just fine. Appreciate your time. How do you believe this will be swallowed? First in Washington by the folks who surround you every day.

THOMPSON: I don't know if swallowing is the right word. I think that the president was absolutely on the mark. He came up with a solution, and that is what this president is all about. And I think most people that I have had the privilege to talk to this evening, on both sides of this aisle, Democrats and Republicans, scientists and non scientists representing many different organizations, have all come out with thumbs-up, saying that this is really a step in the right direction, and believes that this president really is absolutely on the mark, with his decision.

HEMMER: Some people are already saying that the biggest line of friction could come from within your own party, the Republican Party, especially on the House side of Congress. Do you fear that?

THOMPSON: Oh, you know, that is that is entirely possible. I think the president was able to lay out his position very concisely, and I think very thoughtfully. I think if people listen to what the president had to say, he is saying that these stem cell lines are in existence.

Let's allow the research to continue, but no further derivation of any further embryos. I think this president really was able to structure a solution that meets the needs. The real news is that there are approximately 60 to 69 stem cell lines around the world. And these stem cell lines are going to be made available through the NIH, the National Institutes of Health will set up a registry.

People will be able to use federal funds to come in and be able to continue doing the research that a lot of people believe will come through with the breakthroughs to solve a lot of the maladies of diseases in America.

HEMMER: I want to pick up again on that federal funding. Tell me and explain to me why it is that federal funding can help in a project like this, moving things forward at a much quicker pace than private money can?

THOMPSON: Just because the fact that NIH gives its stamp of approval, the fact that the federal government is supporting it, the fact that the federal dollars are there for the kind of research that really will allow for the basic research to look for cures for diseases that maybe some profit motive companies or individuals would not have the ability to do.

This is the kind of research that is necessary for us to make the comparison of all the cell lines between adult stem cells, fat stem cells and make the comparison which ones are the best. And that kind of research has not been done anyplace, and this federal research now will be able to allow that to continue.

HEMMER: Secretary, appreciate your time. Tommy Thompson, Health Human Services secretary from the front lawn of the White House with us this evening.

Again, in simple terms, President Bush said stem cell lines can be used for research, but what is a stem cell line and where does it come from?

With the science in this matter now, CNN's Elizabeth Cohen is with us now. First things first, Elizabeth. What is a stem cell line. We have heard so much about stem cells, but a line has been now introduced in this phrase. What is that?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That is right. President Bush talked about the 60 -- approximately 60 -- stem cell lines that exist. Each line comes from one embryo, so 60 lines that means 60 embryos were destroyed to make the lines. Here you have an embryo. Those are little tiny stem cells that are being suctioned out there.

You suction them out and you create a line. You create a whole bunch of them. And out of just that one embryo you can get millions upon millions of stem cells as you can see here in our animation, that just keeps going and going and going.

And so you get millions of identical stem cells. So, from one embryo you can get lots and they are all genetically exactly the same. And that is what a stem cell line is.

HEMMER: Now prior to this decision, there was a lot of talk about taking frozen embryos stored in laboratories all over country or all over the world, for that matter. That will not happen based on this decision tonight. What's the impact there, Elizabeth?

COHEN: Well that is exactly what scientists wanted access to, is the embryos that are sitting in fertility labs, as you said about 100,000 that are frozen in tanks like this. And what Bush said is you cannot create any new stem cell lines. You have to use the ones that are already in existence. These are here you see close-ups of embryos. So again, the scientists will not be able to go to these banks and use embryos that are sitting there. These are embryos that are sitting there, these are embryos that are left over, the parents chose not to use to start a pregnancy.

HEMMER: And where do you get these stem cell lines?

COHEN: You get the stem cell lines from the embryos. In other words, since 1998 scientists have been taking embryos like the ones that have been sitting in fertility labs, and making their stem cell lines with them. That is already done. It is over. They have made 60 of them. They could make many more, but now Bush is saying you cannot use federal funds in order to make any more. Private companies could do it, but you cannot use federal funds to make any more.

HEMMER: Certainly you are in touch with scientists all over country every day in your job. Are they happy or not with this decision overall?

COHEN: We floated this balloon by them because we had a feeling this is what Bush was going to say. And some of them said, you know what, it is going to be better than nothing. It's better that he says that than he says no federal funding for any of them.

However, they all said that they would be pretty disappointed because they said that even though you get zillions of stem cells from one embryo, they are the all the same and they said you need lot of genetic variation. And most of the scientists I talked to said 60 or something round that number, isn't nearly enough. You need many more.

Also, stem cells over time, the DNA inside them can break down. So those 60 might not last forever and since you can't make any new ones with federal funds, then you might be left with not as many as you thought. So as one researcher said, it would be like fighting a war today with World War II era weapons.

HEMMER: You have had a long day. Thanks for staying late with us tonight. Elizabeth Cohen, medical correspondent with us this evening.

And when we come back here, a scientist will talk more about the science of stem cell research. Will it work and how long before it takes? That is straight ahead tonight when our special report continues right after this.

First, in tonight's "News Quiz," which presidential administration was the first to ban federal funding for research on human embryos? Was it Bill Clinton, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter?

The answer is coming up.


HEMMER: We want to continue now with the science of stem cells, where research stands now, and how President Bush's decision affects the potential for the future. Joining us to sort that out tonight: from Denver, one of the most preeminent stem cell researchers in the country, Dr. Curt Freed, of the University of Colorado is with us.

Now, doctor, good evening to you.


HEMMER: Given this decision that we heard from the president, if it continues to stand the way it was delivered tonight, how is this issue different tonight than it was, say, yesterday?

FREED: Well, tonight, we know that research on stem cells is going to go forward with federal funding. It was very clear that the president put a lot of thought into this decision, and we are delighted that he is allowing NIH to fund research on...

HEMMER: So, you are happy about the decision then?

FREED: Well, I'm happy with that aspect. Certainly, if he had prohibits funding, that would have been terrible.

On the other hand, the restriction of the research to the existing stem cells could be a big problem. Namely, we don't really know how to grow human embryonic stem cells at this stage in the game. So that by restricting the research to the existing cells, we may have cells that have already changed. They may not still be stem cells.

HEMMER: So, what you are saying, then, true or false, is that we do not know or completely understand the potential on this issue just yet, correct?

FREED; Well, we don't know whether these 60 stem cells are going to be adequate, whether they are actually still stem cells and are going to have the potential to become any cell in the body, which is really what we hope from stem cells.

HEMMER: Doctor, help me understand this then, why are embryonic cells so critical on an issue like this?

FREED: Well, embryonic stem cells are unique, in that they have the capacity to become any cell in the body. These are cells that come just after the egg has started dividing after being fertilized, and they are only a few hundred cells in the embryo. At that stage, all the cells are the same, and all have the potential to become every cell in the body.

What we hope is that with research, we can guide the cells to become muscle cells, if someone needs muscle cells, or heart cells, if someone needs heart cells, and use those cells to repair the body.

HEMMER: So, then, the difference between embryonic cells and adult cells is that embryonic cells can grow into whatever you so desire, if as a scientist you can work them in a certain direction. Adult cells cannot do that, correct?

FREED: Adult stem cells are cells like are in our bone marrow, that are there to replace the blood cells that die off. We have stem cells in our skin that replace skin.

So, those cells have already been kind of narrowly defined. They have a certain role to play, and we are required to live to have those kinds of stem cells, but the embryonic stem cells are the only ones that can become all cells of the body.

HEMMER: Take us 10, 20, 30 years down the road -- you pick your year that you like. What's the best-case scenario for science on this issue? Where does it take us?

FREED: Well, what I would like to do is look back over the last 50 years. We have been blessed with a whole series of great drugs to treat diseases, from antibiotics to high blood pressure pills. What I see in the 21st century is that we are going to have cells that will be able to be as effective as drugs at treating certain kinds of diseases.

HEMMER: Dr. Curt Freed from Denver and the University of Colorado. You answered my questions. Much appreciated, doctor, thanks for joining us tonight.

FREED: Thank you, Bill.

HEMMER: All right.

And for more on the science behind stem cells, head to our Web site at You will find a copy of the presidential address tonight. As always, the keyword for AOL users is CNN.

We'll have the answer to our "News Quiz" and a final thought right after this time-out.


HEMMER: Now the answer to our quiz. "Which presidential administration was the first to ban federal funding for research on human embryos?" Was it Bill Clinton, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter? The answer is "C." The first ban came in the early 1980s.

And a final word tonight on this issue. Humankind has come to yet another intersection where science meets morality. Lately, we've seen the amazing world of science move at breakneck speed, and we can clearly see the caution signs set up along the side of the road.

We now have an idea of where that road is going, but will we get there? It is far from certain how this science will play out. Stem cells may change our planet. And they may not. But soon, more big decisions will have to be faced and made.

That's our program tonight. I'm Bill Hemmer. Good night from Atlanta.



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