Bush to push research into alternatives to embryonic stem cells

WASHINGTON – President Bush, under increasing pressure to relax his restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, plans to issue an executive order today to encourage government agencies to support research that offers the promise of creating medically useful stem cells without destroying human embryos, according to senior administration officials.

The order, which Bush plans to outline in a speech at the White House today, would require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop guidelines for funding alternative approaches over the next three months.

Bush is to issue his order as he vetoes legislation that would loosen his six-year-old restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The bill passed by comfortable – but not veto-proof – margins in the House and Senate. Bush has opposed research with stem cells derived in a process that destroys human embryos, which he calls immoral.

White House officials acknowledge that the executive order is less a change in policy than “a kick in the pants” for the government to make clear that it is willing to fund promising stem cell research. Recent advances have increased optimism that stem cells with potential for treating diseases or even developing into human organs for transplants can be developed from skin cells, amniotic fluid or even cells salvaged from dead embryos.

The White House sees the emerging research as a way out of a difficult and emotional debate. Shortly after becoming president, Bush banned federal funding of stem cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos, which have long been seen as the most promising source of stem cells, a position cheered by many conservative Christians and others who equate embryos with human lives.

Opponents said that the ban was slowing the pace of potentially lifesaving research, which is now being pursued with private and some state funding. In addition, opponents said the embryos from which stem cells are derived are slated for destruction regardless of whether they are used in research.

“This disabuses us of this notion that there is this fundamental conflict between science and ethics,” Karl Zinsmeister, Bush’s top domestic policy adviser, said of the new research.

Scientists can receive federal funding only for work on embryonic stem cells obtained from roughly 20 colonies already in existence when Bush’s ban went into effect. In his speech, Bush is expected to express the hope that the recent advances will quickly expand the number of cell colonies compatible with federal funding.

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