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'Culture of life'

Books | George W. Bush says his decision on embryonic stem cell research was one of the biggest of his presidency

WASHINGTON-In his new book out Tuesday, President George W. Bush revisits 14 of the biggest decisions of his life, including those related to 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the surge, and the financial crisis. Plus two less politically juicy but meaningful ones: limiting funding for embryonic stem cell research and jumpstarting funding to address global AIDS.

Bush acknowledges in Decision Points that he was the first president in history to fund embryonic stem cell research, drawing initial condemnation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and later from those on the left who thought he didn't go far enough in lifting research restrictions. He allowed research in cell lines where embryos had already been destroyed and expanded funding for research into adult stem cells, an avenue that has proved effective while doing away with ethical quandaries. Bush's first veto in office was a bill to fund expanded embryonic stem cell research.

Following Bush, the Obama administration opened more embryonic stem cell lines for federal funding, though the lines for research still must go through an approval process that has proved slow and has drawn complaints from researchers.

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But before all of that, according to the book, he struggled to make the stem cell decision in the first months of his presidency. "First of all, what is a stem cell?" he asked his domestic policy adviser Margaret Spellings during his first briefing on guidelines for embryonic stem cells. The next few months he spent educating himself on the debate and meeting with interested parties like Pope John Paul II and University of Chicago professor Leon Kass, who ultimately helped Bush form his position on the issue and became the chair of the president's bioethics council.

"I felt pulled in both directions," Bush wrote. "I had no interest in joining the Flat Earth Society. I empathized with the hopes for new medical cures. I had lost a sister to childhood leukemia." In the end he concluded that "the science was unproven, the morality was in doubt, and ethical alternatives existed."

When he decided in July 2001 to limit embryonic stem cell funding to those existing lines, he announced the decision in a rare prime time speech to the nation. "I made this decision with great care, and I pray it is the right one," Bush said. His own head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, opposed the president's decision but aggressively funded research into using adult stem cells, which have turned out to be a valid alternative. Still, criticism mounted and Democrats campaigned on a "return to science" in support of embryonic stem cell research. Bush wrote that principled decisions would be "vindicated."

"Partisan opponents and commentators questioned my legitimacy, my intelligence, and my sincerity. They mocked my appearance, my accent, and my religious beliefs," he wrote. "I had run on a promise to change the tone in Washington. I took that vow seriously and tried to do my part, but I rarely succeeded."

Bush also instated the Mexico City policy, banning federal funding for abortions overseas. He signed the ban on partial-birth abortion and supported expanded tax credits for adoptions and funding for crisis pregnancy centers.

One of the most praised initiatives Bush spearheaded was the effort to fight global AIDS, which he considered an effort to demonstrate that "every life has dignity and value." His program, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, was the largest effort to fight a single disease, a program he called "a medical version of the Marshall Plan." Under the program, millions received antiretroviral treatment who had never before, and President Obama has continued that effort.

"As president, I had no desire to condemn millions as sinners or dump new fuel on raging cultural fires," he wrote "I did feel a responsibility to voice my pro-life convictions and lead the country toward what Pope John Paul II called a culture of life."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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