Last summer President Bush invited several scientists to the Oval Office to revisit one of his earliest--and most contro-versial--decisions: to fund, but strictly limit, stem-cell research. Bush wanted to explore the impact of his 2001 policy to approve research only on existing stem cells drawn from human embryos. So he asked the scientists about the viability of the 21 approved stem-cell lines. And he quizzed them about possible contamination with mouse cells. One month later, he issued the first veto of his presidency against an expansion of stem-cell research.
With a new Democratic-led Congress, Bush is now facing a greater political challenge than he was then. Last week House Democrats voted once again to approve funding for research using stem cells drawn from embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics. The final vote fell short of a veto-proof majority, and the White House promised to block it again.
But this time around, Bush's aides feel far more confident about winning the broader debate--even though they have lost control of Congress. The reason: science itself. New research published this month suggests there is an encouraging alternative to embryonic stem cells and the adult stem cells that pose no ethics constraints. Amniotic stem cells--drawn from the fluid surrounding fetuses and from the placenta--seem to share many of the qualities of embryonic cells.
The new science may be Bush's salvation. Karl Zinsmeister, Bush's chief domestic-policy adviser, tells NEWSWEEK the research points toward an end to the culture wars over stem cells. "We want people to be aware there are no bans on stem-cell research," he says. "This is in fact an incredibly bubbly field right now, and the president is very pleased and excited to see lots of new studies are coming out." To prove the point, the White House published a 67-page report on the current state of stem-cell science. Zinsmeister says the president's policy has not curtailed science--at least for now. So much remains unknown about all three types of stem cells, however, that scientists don't want to abandon any of them yet.
"The 21 lines are adequate for the state in which the science now exists," he says. "Ten years from now, would 21 lines be adequate? Probably not." By then, Bush hopes, the scientists won't need embryonic stem cells at all.