WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 (JTA) — Jewish groups are offering qualified praise for President Bush’s decision to allow some federal funding for stem cell research, hoping that it is only the first step to more expansive government support.
Many groups praised Bush’s decision, but — since it will allow funding for research only on about 60 existing stem cell lines — expressed hope that the scope of funding would be expanded in the future.
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said it was “cautiously optimistic” about the decision.
The Orthodox Union, which recently came out in favor of stem cell research, said it was comfortable with Bush’s stance.
“Our limits would have been more expansive,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. “But there’s nothing wrong with proceeding with caution.”
But some scientists worry that going too slowly will hinder medical progress. The National Council of Jewish Women said it was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s decision, calling it too narrow and restricting.
In his first prime-time speech to the nation, Bush laid out the arguments for both sides of the issue.
One side essentially says stem cell research potentially could bring cures to many diseases, and notes that many embryos will be destroyed regardless.
The other side views embryos as human beings, and their destruction as immoral.
President Bush’s compromise plan allowed him to sidestep the difficult ethical questions that would have come with a decision either to fully support or to ban such research.
“I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made,” Bush said.
During the campaign and as recently as May, Bush said he would oppose federally funded research or experimentation on embryonic stem cells that requires living human embryos to be destroyed.
Most Jewish ethicists agree that tradition allows embryos to be destroyed if the research has the potential to benefit society. Polls show a majority of Americans support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
A stem cell is a special kind of cell that has a unique capacity to renew itself and to develop into specialized cell types. Researchers use stem cells to replace cells that are damaged or diseased.
Many believe stem cell research may yield cures for Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and more.
A recently released report from the National Institutes of Health found that both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells “present immense research opportunities for potential therapy.”
But while embryonic stem cells can proliferate indefinitely, adult stem cells cannot.
Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ Department of Jewish Family Concerns, said Bush had opted for a “safe decision.”
“I wish it went further,” he said, but acknowledged the political reality Bush faced.
Address said he hopes this step will allow people to reflect on the linkages between tradition and medical technology, and make these matters part of the public discourse.
The lead editorial in the New York Times the morning after the speech criticized Bush for waffling.
“Last night George W. Bush had one of those rare opportunities a president gets to take a bold step that might define his administration,” the Times wrote. “Instead, he ducked.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who favors stem cell research, called Bush’s decision a “compassionate solution” that “balances respect for life with high hopes for research.”
Thompson said the government wants to create a registry of the stem cell lines, but that patent issues must still be resolved with research centers that own the existing stem cell lines.
President Bush also will establish a Council on Bioethics to look at issues such as stem cell research, cloning, assisted reproduction, gene therapy, psycho-active drugs and brain implants.