CRAWFORD, Texas, Aug. 9 -- President George W. Bush on Thursday said he would allow federal funding for limited research involving cells from human embryos, reversing a campaign pledge after months of mulling the controversial issue.
"We must proceed with great care," Bush said in announcing his decision at his ranch in central Texas.
Bush outlined research guidelines that would allow federally funded studies to use human embryonic stem cells drawn from stores already being used in ongoing private research. Private stem cell research has created some 60 colonies of stem cells, or cell lines, that have the ability to regenerate themselves for use in further studies, he said.
"Leading scientists tell me research on these 60 lines has great promise that can lead to break through therapies and cures," Bush said. "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."
Critics of the Bush plan, a compromise long debated in Washington and the scientific community, say that using only existing stem cell lines hinders research because the approach limits the diversity of cells available for study.
Bush's guidelines rolled back stem cell research rules framed in the Clinton administration by the National Institutes of Health, which Bush blocked from going forward while he reviewed the issue.
The decision is similar to compromise proposals put forward by stem cell research advocates Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
But the move represents a departure from Bush's stance on the issue during the presidential campaigns in 2000, when he shored up support among conservatives by emphasizing his anti-abortion sentiments while aides publicly said he would take steps to end stem cell research if elected.
"I oppose federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying living human embryos," Bush said in a May 18 letter to the Culture of Life Foundation. "I support innovative medical research on life-threatening and debilitating diseases, including promising research on stem cells from adult tissue."
Bush has grappled for months over the decision, receiving counsel from sources as diverse as Pope John Paul II, members of Congress, scientists and bioethicists. In addition to the impact of his decision on science, the president knows his decision is sure to please or disappoint crucial blocs of the electorate.
John Paul, for instance, strongly urged him to bar federal funds, saying embryonic cells are a form of human life and should not be sacrificed. The pope's view may influence millions of American Catholics.
The pope's view of an embryo as a form of human life that must be preserved is shared by millions of people who oppose abortion. This group is the very core of Bush's conservative constituency.
The argument of scientists is that embryonic research can lead to new treatments for some of humanity's most dreaded diseases -- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes, and create a revolution in medical science.
The exciting possibilities of stem cell research have drawn the interest of some of the anti-abortion movement's hard-liners. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, concluded last month that stem cell research "facilitates life," and he could accept it without changing his position that abortion kills human beings. He and others want stem cell research confined to embryos that have been rejected for use in in-vitro fertilization clinics and would otherwise be destined for destruction.
The growing anti-abortion, pro-stem-cell group in the Senate, including Sens. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., suggested a path to the president for reconciling his dilemma.
According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, reported Tuesday, a majority of Americans (55 percent) support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in general while 62 percent said such research is important.
Bush worked on the address on Wednesday afternoon and again Wednesday evening with Karen Hughes, the president's counselor, and Jay Lefkowitz, a senior adviser of the Office of Management and Budget.
The president delivered the address from the "Governor's House," which is the old ranch house of the ranch.
Experts say there are some 100,000 frozen embryos that were not used in reproduction and likely will be destroyed that could be used for this research.
Fertility clinics could also produce embryos for research, but there seems to be little support for this, and several proposals would limit science to the embryos that are a byproduct.
Abortion opponents say the practice, which destroys the embryo, is no different than terminating a pregnancy. But advocates say that the cells in these freezers are destined for destruction anyway.
Stem cells, formed in days-old embryos, can develop into the entire range of cellular tissues that make up the body. Scientists believe they can eventually use stem cells to regenerate tissues damaged from diseases like Parkinson's, diabetes and multiple sclerosis, among others.
Stem cells have been successfully implanted in animals to help them regain function in dead tissues. In one experiment, animals with spinal cord injuries regained function in their hind legs after stem cells were implanted in their spinal cords. In another study, animals that had suffered strokes regained some of their motor function and mental function after stem cells were implanted in their brains.
Amid public outcry, the National Institutes of Health banned studies using stem cells from aborted fetuses or human embryos in January 1999. But the Clinton administration last August said stem cells from frozen embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics could be used for research.