The Pope warned George Bush yesterday of the "evils" of using human embryos for medical purposes, in an intervention calculated to influence a key US decision on public funding for stem-cell research.
Receiving the American president for the first time at his summer residence in Castelgandolfo, south of Rome, Pope John Paul appeared keen to encourage Mr Bush on issues where they share some common ground – notably, opposition to abortion and human intervention in the reproductive process – while steering clear of the issue that most keenly divides them, the death penalty.
The stem-cell issue has weighed heavily on Mr Bush for several weeks as he seeks to reconcile the clamour for federal funding from research scientists, most political leaders and a majority of public opinion on the one hand, and the determined opposition of Christian fundamentalists, the more extreme anti-abortion groups and leaders of the Catholic Church on the other.
The meeting with the Pope presented an opportunity for both men. Mr Bush received a much-needed boost to justify his hesitation on the stem-cell issue, which has prompted accusations at home of being in thrall to the far right. The Vatican, meanwhile, made clear that it hoped the issue would improve relations with the White House following a frosty period while Bill Clinton – who advocated a woman's right to an abortion – was in office.
Little of substance emerged in public accounts of the meeting between the Pope and President Bush – it was described by Vatican officials as cordial – but both men made their feelings clear in public statements once the 35-minute encounter was over.
The Pope gave a speech denouncing abortion, euthanasia and the "creation for research purposes of human embryos destined to destruction in the process". He said that such scientific work was accompanied by a "tragic coarsening of consciences".
Mr Bush, meanwhile, expressed deep reverence for the 81-year-old Pontiff, and told a news conference he would take his comments on the stem-cell issue into consideration. He gave no hint of which way he was inclining, saying only that he had to balance "respect for life with the promise of science and the hope of saving life".
Stem-cell research promises rapid progress against various diseases, including Alzheimer's Parkinson's and diabetes. Embryonic stem cells are primitive master cells that have the ability to transform themselves into virtually any type of cell in the body. Harnessing them offers the potential of regenerating damaged organs or tissue.
Given this potential, Mr Bush is facing increasingly loud demands for funding for the work from both the scientific community and the government's own research body. It has been praised as "pro-life" in the best sense of the word even by more moderate opponents of abortion, since it does not involve the destruction of viable embryos but rather takes advantage of fertilised eggs left over from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded.
Mr Bush's reasons for hesitating appear to be a result of his reluctance to alienate his voting base among evangelical Christians, who were among his most ardent supporters in last year's nail-bitingly close presidential election. The White House has also expressed an interest in cultivating the sympathy of Catholic voters, a line that makes less sense since opinion polls show a that majority of rank-and-file American Catholics support the stem cell-research in defiance of the Pope's own stance.
Mr Bush indicated a certain awe in meeting the Pope, saying he was not poetic enough to be able to describe what it was like to be in his presence. Dressed in a dark suit, the president was welcomed by the Swiss Guards, after his bulletproof limousine had struggled with the tight corners of the medieval lanes leading up to Castelgandolfo.
He looked nervous as he was introduced to the elderly Pontiff. After the private meeting, the President's wife Laura and daughter Barbara, their heads covered with black mantillas out of reverence for the Pope, were called in to admire the stunning lake view.Reuse content