It was the toughest call of his young presidency, and George Bush chose an event no less momentous than his first prime-time address to announce that he had found a thin ridge of moral high ground on which to perch. The wrenching decision: whether to lend federal support to embryonic-stem-cell research, unleashing potential cures for horrific illnesses and life-shattering injuries, but at the cost of giving government sanction to the destruction of human embryos. Bush had searched both his soul and his 3-in.-thick briefing book. He had quizzed experts and ethicists and even the doctors in the White House medical unit. In that 11-min. speech, set not in the Oval Office but against an expanse of Texas prairie, the President talked about the dream of wiping out Alzheimer's disease and childhood diabetes but also of the nightmarish "hatcheries" of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The issue, Bush declared, "lies at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages." The government would move forward carefully, he promised, providing federal money for research on cell colonies that had already been created by that point, August 2001, but not edging one inch further down the slope of destroying additional human embryos. "I spent a lot of time on the subject," he later told reporters. "I laid out the policy I think is right for America, and I'm not going to change my mind."
Now, the once solid ground that Bush staked out almost four years ago is crumbling beneath him, and he will probably soon find himself once again in the middle of an argument that he had declared settled. As early as next week, the Republican-controlled House--the same House that held a Palm Sunday session so that it could deliver a lifeline to Terri Schiavo--is expected to consider legislation that could dramatically expand the number of stem-cell "lines" available to federally funded research by making accessible tens of thousands of embryos that have been created through in vitro fertilization. The bill contains a number of safeguards aimed at ensuring that it would apply only to embryos that would otherwise have been discarded. It stipulates that the embryos must have been created by individuals seeking fertility treatment and who then discovered that they had produced "in excess of the clinical need." It also requires that those donors give permission for the embryos to be used in stem-cell research, and forbids them from receiving any compensation.
As things look now, the bill has a good shot. By the end of last week, 200 members of the House--nearly half--had signed on as co-sponsors to the legislation authored by Delaware Republican Mike Castle and Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette. And the number of supporters is expected to grow when it is put to a vote. Predictions are that as many as 50 Republicans could join Democrats in favor of it. While the legislation presents Republican moderates a rare opportunity for victory on Capitol Hill, it has also attracted the interest and support of some conservatives who say they discern a growing pro- life case for what embryonic-stem-cell research has to offer.