Groups Quiet on Stem-cell Research As Bush Goes to the Boards for Israel
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Groups Quiet on Stem-cell Research As Bush Goes to the Boards for Israel

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American Jews were ready to take President Bush to the boards over stem-cell research. And then he went to the boards for Israel.

The same groups that led the fight to get substantial congressional majorities for federally funded embryonic stem-cell research said the conflagration in the Middle East, and Bush’s unstinting support for Israel took some of the wind out of their plans to fight a rearguard action against his veto.

At least for now.

“Would we go to the boards? Last week I would have said yes, this week I don’t know,” said June Walker, the president of Hadassah, the group that led Jewish advocacy for federally funded stem-cell research. “We will wait and resolve this issue until the issue with Israel is resolved, but will our basic support for stem-cell research change? No.”

Hadassah’s lobbying, which relied in part on Israeli research in the area, was considered critical in turning around Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the majority leader and physician who has otherwise stood solidly by Bush. Hadassah’s annual convention this week in Nashville is in part a salute to Frist for bringing the legislation to the Senate floor.

The bill would have extended federal funding to research using embryos that were slated to be discarded by fertility clinics, and would not have cultivated embryos specifically for research. Opponents point out that surplus embryos have been “adopted,” and Bush surrounded himself with the offspring of such experiments when he announced the veto. However, such adoptions are very rare.

Before Hezbollah launched its attack on Israel on July 12, it had been anticipated that Bush’s decision to exercise his first veto in his five and a half years as president would stir Jewish community outrage. He vetoed the bill July 19; an attempt the same day in the U.S. House of Representatives to override the veto with a two-thirds majority failed.

Jewish groups were set to back Democratic efforts to introduce a new bill and keep the issue alive for November midterm congressional elections, when Bush’s opposition to embryonic stem-cell research is expected to hurt Republicans. The research has broad public backing.

Now, however, there was a sense that the community would not attack the issue full force.

“We still care and still work on other issues” besides Israel, said Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for community relations councils. “Still, it’s a matter of how much time and energy we have.”

There is little sympathy in Jewish thought for the conservative Christian view that embryonic stem cells represent human life; instead, most streams of Judaism embrace the scientific potential such research has in curing degenerative conditions.

“Jewish tradition places great value upon human life and its preservation,” the Orthodox Union, a group otherwise noted for warm relations with the White House, said in a statement supporting last week’s 63-37 vote in the Senate. “Judaism does not accord embryonic cells outside the womb the full status of humanhood and its attendant protections.”

But Bush’s willingness to stem international calls for an immediate cease-fire in order to give Israel time to incapacitate Hezbollah in Lebanon meant the community would likely keep a lower profile for now, Gutow said.

“It won’t lessen the fact that the Jewish community is united on this issue,” he said. “But when Israel is threatened, it becomes front and center.”

Even Bush’s Jewish opponents conceded that Israel is likely to trump the stem-cell issue for now.

“The first concern of the Jewish community now is and should be Israel,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

That frustrated congressional Democrats, who have relied on Jewish community lobbying to get this far with the issue. One senior official wondered whether Jewish leaders, who have in recent months openly reflected the wider American dissatisfaction with Bush, are again in retreat because of what was happening in the Middle East.

“Is the Jewish community back where it was?” the official said, referring to a Jewish reluctance to criticize Bush that started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — a reluctance that long outlasted the spike in popularity Bush enjoyed after the attacks.

Not necessarily, Jewish leaders said — it’s just that such criticism may be tempered by Middle East realities.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Gutow said. “But when you see images of Israelis suffering every day, the community will be focused on that.”

Hadassah, for its part, did not hold back in expressing its fury at the Bush veto.

“With one stroke of the pen, the president has dismissed the will of the American people,” Walker said in a statement July 19.

She called the veto “immoral” and added: “It is a shame for all those who are suffering from diseases whose treatment and cure is within our reach that the president places greater value on safeguarding ‘potential life’ than he does on safeguarding the lives of those who are living in the here and now.”

The O.U.’s Nathan Diament said he preferred to regard the veto as a “glass-half-full” situation, noting that Bush had instructed the National Institutes of Health to exhaustively study non-embryonic stem-cell research. There is a scientific consensus that non-embryonic stem cells do not have the same medical potential.

Diament said Bush also deserves credit for ignoring more extreme voices that call for an outright ban.

“Some folks in Congress would outlaw embryonic stem-cell research period, privately or publicly funded,” he said. “He has a principled position; we disagree with it.”

Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, bemoaned what he said was a misperception in the Jewish community that the ban killed embryonic stem-cell research outright.

“This doesn’t ban or prohibit research on stem cells, it bans federal funds for research,” he said, adding that Bush was the first president to fund any embryonic stem-cell research, allowing financing for stem-cell lines that had already been started.

Those lines have long been dismissed as tainted, said Jewish experts who have been advocating for further funding.

Additionally, no federal funding virtually guaranteed that any U.S. research would be extremely limited, said Rachel Goldberg, the director for elderly care for B’nai B’rith International.

“It is absolutely critical to have federal funding,” Goldberg said.

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