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Persuading a president

National | An adopted embryo named Hannah provides pro-life forces a human face in the stem-cell debate, but the private battle for the heart of President Bush rages on

Issue: "Interview with Larry King," July 28, 2001

in Washington-Topped by turquoise hair ribbons, 12-year-old Las Vegas twins Mollie and Jackie Singer strolled on the lawn of the Rayburn House Office Building before TV cameras to illustrate their story. Mollie has juvenile diabetes, and has written President Bush pleading for him to support federal funding for research that would sacrifice human embryos in an effort to find cures for diabetes and other diseases. Inside Rayburn, a different human-interest story unfolded. At a packed hearing of a House Government Reform subcommittee (even its "overflow room" overflowed), Marlene Strege told how she and her husband John adopted Hannah, now 28 months old, as an embryo-a life spared from the possibility of scientific sacrifice. Despite the dueling images on Capitol Hill, the debate over embryonic stem-cell research plays to an audience of one: President Bush, whose public agonizing over the issue has focused media attention on whether he'll endorse President Clinton's move to allow federal grants to researchers working on embryos. On the eve of the president's European trip, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on public television's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and counseled press patience with the decision-making process: "These are deeply, deeply significant ethical questions about the future of the race, about medical research, about our ability to deal with horrendous diseases, and at the same time give due regard to the sanctity of human life. It's appropriate that he should take plenty of time to make sure he understands all of the ramifications of it, that he's comfortable with the final course he decides upon." Mr. Cheney added that the president regards his decision as having "enormous significance" and thus has "really dug into it in great depth," by exploring the subject with a multitude of counselors: "He's ... talked to a great many people about it." But whose advice will carry the day? One close adviser on this issue, Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate's only surgeon, has announced he supports experimenting on embryos under strict guidelines using only those embryos that might presently be discarded, and banning the creation of embryos solely for research. Pro-lifers on the other side are pinning hopes on the president's scheduled Vatican meeting with Pope John Paul II, who's been outspoken against the disposal of research embryos around the world. Previewing his trip, Mr. Bush noted to foreign reporters: "In my country, the Holy Father has an enormous impact, because the leaders of the Catholic Church, for example, stand strong on the principle of life." But when will Mr. Bush decide? Vice President Cheney predicted a presidential decision by the end of next month, but it could come sooner. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Marlene Strege introduced a human face to the embryonic stem-cell research debate that opponents needed. Mrs. Strege skillfully undermined the pro-choice publicity line that embryos destroyed in medical research would otherwise certainly be thrown away without serving any purpose. Reacting to the fact that in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics store away many thousands of embryos while millions of infertile couples want babies, Mr. and Mrs. Strege adopted an embryo in 1998. Through Nightlight Christian Adoptions in Fullerton, Calif., a number of couples are now adopting frozen embryos and having babies they call "snowflakes," based on the concept that each embryo is a unique gift from God. At their press conference just outside the Capitol, champions of government-subsidized embryo research matched their own sad stories of disease sufferers with vocal disdain for pro-life arguments. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) bluntly compared his side to Galileo arguing with the Catholic Church about whether the sun is the center of the universe, and declared President Bush will decide "whether we're going to have science in this country." Pro-life activists take comfort in Mr. Bush's campaign promises to oppose embryo-destroying research: "We're just pointing toward those utterances," said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee. Since 1996, the NRLC and other pro-life groups have successfully pushed legislation banning federal funding for embryo-destroying research. Whatever the president decides, it's up to Congress to take the next step. If pro-abortion Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) don't like Mr. Bush's decision, they will push their bill to fund embryonic stem-cell research. If Mr. Bush recants his campaign promise, House conservatives led by GOP leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, both fellow Texans, have insisted the government shouldn't support an "industry of death." On June 7, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) introduced a bill to authorize expanded funding for research obtained without killing human embryos. Is there a middle ground? "It's not like highway money," Mr. Cheney said on the NewsHour. "There's no way you can split the difference." Or speed the process.

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