Bush gives go-ahead for limited research on stem cells

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George Bush has made up his mind to permit government funding for stem cell research in strictly limited circumstances, administration officials said on Thursday night before a nationwide address in which he was to announce the most important ­ and most difficult ­ decision of his Presidency so far.

"The President has considered the scientific and ethical issues involved," a White House spokesman said yesterday regarding the issue, which bitterly divides the scientists and religious conservatives and has split his own Republican party. "This is a decision which will have far-reaching implications for America 20 to 30 years from now and beyond."

Unnamed White House officials were quoted by television networks as saying that Mr Bush, who spent much of yesterday practising his speech, would impose strict conditions on such funding.

His Health Secretary, Tommy Thompson, who supports federal funding, indicated that he was happy with the President's decision and was confident the public would be as well. Laura Bush, the First Lady, suggested that she might accept backing for research on stem cells discarded during fertility treatments.

Federal funding for research into embryonic stem cells ­ which have potential to regenerate damaged body tissue offers hopes of curing such illnesses as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, strokes and diabetes ­ was approved by Bill Clinton, but Mr Bush put the problem under review in February, shortly after he took office.

Six months on, the stakes could hardly be higher, for two reasons. Whatever he decided was likely to upset an important constituency.

A decision in favour would deeply upset anti-abortionists (whose number includes Mr Bush) and conservative Christians ,who are an important part of his constituency. The Pope urged a ban during a Vatican audience with the President last month.

But a decision against would win Mr Bush few friends in the moderate centre, where he is weak, and antagonise much of the scientific community. The Republican party is also split.

Although the leadership of the party's majority in the House of Representatives has come out vehemently against stem cell research, Bill First ­ a doctor, Tennessee senator and Bush ally ­ is in favour. No fewer than 61 of the 100 senators, including 13 Republicans, have backed the project.

Scarcely less vital is presentation; hence the decision to address the nation on prime-time television.

The hope is that a convincingly-argued speech will help endow Mr Bush with gravitas, which he still lacks in the eyes of many Americans.

The President is likely to emphasise his opposition to deliberate and full-scale human cloning, as advocated by the controversial Italian doctor Severino Antinori. At a conference this week, Dr Antinori said that in November he planned to launch a programme to provide cloned children for infertile couples.

France and Germany are pushing for an international convention outlawing human cloning worldwide. The two countries have written to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, to urge action during the coming session of the UN general assembly, which opens next month. They want the assembly to set up a special committee that would draft an international treaty.

A German Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "The objective is an international ban on the reproductive cloning of humans and the creation of a globally applicable ethical boundary for the relevant areas of research."

The French health minister, Bernard Kouchner, said it was "morally unacceptable to create life while hijacking its very meaning. We have to ban the photocopying of human beings now," he told Le Monde.