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Robert George: Politics of stem cell research

Robert A. George is a panelist for CNN's "Take 5" and the Associate Editorial Page Editor for the "New York Post." An Adjuct fellow to the Center for New Black Leadership, George has held the position of director of coalitions for the Republican National Committee. George also writes a column for "National Review Online." He joined the chat room from New York.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Robert George, and welcome.

ROBERT GEORGE: Hello, everybody! Glad to be here on what is a hot and sweltering day on the East Coast!

CNN: Did President George W. Bush alienate anyone with his decision?

GEORGE: I think he may have frustrated some people, both those who wanted him to keep the complete ban on federal funding on stem cell research, as well as those who wanted him to completely lift it, and have almost unlimited research into the stem cells. The people on the extremes may be frustrated, but the large middle on this issue would have to say they were satisfied with his decision.

What President Bush's decision means

Bush will allow federal funding for research on 60 lines of embryonic stem cells. These lines of cells have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely but not all have been approved by the National Institutes of Health, which sets federal standards for research.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to turn into any other kind of cell in the body, and have been looked to as possible treatments for Alzheimer's disease and Type I diabetes.
Watch President Bush's speech on federal funding for stem cell research (Part 1) (August 9)

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Bush's speech (Part 2)

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In-depth: The stem cell debate  
CNN Access: Bioethicist on implications of Bush's decision  
Message board: Stem cells and cloning  

CHAT PARTICIPANT: People are saying that the number of stem cell lines existing is only 10 or 12. Bush said 60. How many are there?

GEORGE: That's a good question, and I'm not sure where that number came from. I'll have to talk to others about that to find out where he came up with that number. I think there has been ongoing research within the last 6-8 months that may account for that expanded number. He also pointed out that those lines can be regenerated indefinitely, so you can get more and more lines from those. I think he feels that that's a good number with which to do some in depth research on.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. George do you belive that Mr. Reeve is an extremist?

GEORGE: I don't think he's an extremist. I think he's very heart-felt in pushing this issue. There are other celebrities out there who are equally passionate that there needs to be more research. Mary Tyler Moore, for example, heads the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and is very strong about more research. Reeve came out with a statement yesterday, where he said that Bush' s decision was a good start. He wasn't so much critical of the President, but said he hopes Congress will weigh in in the near future.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. George, I missed the speech last night, did Bush say anything about his stand on cloning humans?

GEORGE: The President did talk about human cloning, and he's opposed to that. He supported the ban that went through the House of Representatives about two weeks ago. It gets technical scientifically here, but the main political difference between the stem cell and the cloning research has to do with the basic process involved. The stem cells come from materials that come from the embryo, and also can be obtained from the umbilical cord and placenta during birth. In some of the stem cells there's a belief that you can analyze the material from the stem cells in order to help cure diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes.

There are many people who believe that cloning, that is to say, making in a sense an artificial duplicate of human cells, can also help with these diseases. However, there is strong opposition to the possibility that science may want to clone a human being in the same way we've managed to clone sheep, like Dolly. The main ethical distinctions in terms of stem cells, specifically embryonic stem cells, and cloning, come about from the view that it is wrong to destroy embryos to experiment on them, and it is also wrong ethically for man to try to create another human being via cloning.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What in our Constitution gives the President the right to make this decision unilaterally?

GEORGE: It's important to keep in mind that all the President is doing is saying whether Federal funds will be used in this research. And obviously, the President has broad latitude when it comes to funding issues. Nothing in the President's decision prevents research from continuing in the private sector.

CNN: Has the president changed his position? Is his pro-life position questioned now?

GEORGE: Some pro-lifers would say so, however, he has been consistent in saying that he did not support research that depended upon the continued destruction of human embryos. His decision yesterday narrowly permits the research upon stem cell lines that have already been extracted from embryos. So in that sense, he's remained true to his principle that he will not permit funding to go to continued embryo destruction.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will conservative politicians like Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes whose main issue is pro-life take issue with President Bush breaking a campaign vow?

GEORGE: Yes. I haven't seen a statement from Gary Bauer yet today, though I do know Alan Keyes feels that George W. Bush has violated pro-life principles. There will be some criticism from some of the conservatives on this move by Bush.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any scientific arguments against stem cell research?

GEORGE: There are differences in the scientific community over not so much stem cell research as such, but over whether embryonic stem cells should be used. There are certain scientists who believe that we should just have more extensive research on adult stem cells, and we should do more to get couples to contribute the materials from birth, such as the umbilical cord and placenta, which could also provide this material as well. There is disagreement even among scientists about the ethical use of embryonic stem cells.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: It was reported that Bush was making the decision now so he could enjoy his vacation. Why do you think he choose this time to make the announcement?

GEORGE: That's a good question. He had been saying that he'd been thinking about this for a long time. He'd also said that his decision would probably be coming imminently. Politically speaking, his advisors may have said it's a good time to do it, because people think he's on vacation, and it shows that even on vacation, he's always on the job. Politically speaking, that may have been a good idea, and I don't think people should criticize him for that. There was also the thought that it was better to get the decision out of the way, so he may be able to focus on other aspects of his agenda for the rest of the month.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Was President Bush influenced at all from relgious conservatives

GEORGE: Oh, certainly. I think he had influence from religious conservatives, also influence from people in the science community, from social conservatives who disagree with some of their fellow pro-lifers, people like Orrin Hatch, a very religious Morman, very pro-life, who was supportive of research on embryos. He had input from Connie Mack, a very conservative Catholic, who was also supportive. He was influenced and advised from people on all sides of the issue, from a variety of religious and moral perspectives.

CNN: Has Bush positioned himself well enough to get a majority of support in the house?

GEORGE: It may be too early to say, on that. You may have some social conservatives in the House who felt he went too far, and they may want to demand to have a vote in the House on the issue. So, he's probably going to have to do a lot of work this month, and in September when Congress comes back into session, to ensure there won't be a large amount of protest coming from Congress on this decision.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Would the umbilical cord and placenta of born babies get the same kind of stem cells?

GEORGE: As I understand the science, you can get I think the same kind of stem cells, or very close in development, from those, and it's quite possible for scientists to ask parents who are about to give birth to donate that material to science.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

GEORGE: I thought on a number of levels, the President's speech last night was quite impressive. I thought he demonstrated that he had been thinking of this issue for a long time, he had a command of the different moral and ethical and scientific aspects of the issue, and I thought he looked very commanding and Presidential. He spoke eloquently. So, I think it's still a controversial issue, but he managed to handle it in a brilliant manner.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

GEORGE: I thank all of you for taking the time to discuss the issue.

Robert George joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Friday, August 10, 2001.



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