Josh Bolten takes a pounding on stem cell research

I’ve always thought that Tim Russert is, if anything, too soft on his guests. I’ve seen interviews he’s done where the guest is being evasive, but he is too respectful to put in the hard question and keep pushing until they answer it. However, yesterday’s Meet the Press interview with White House Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten, was just embarrassing for him as he tried but failed to twist and turn out of the contradictions of the White House’s position on embryonic stem cell research.

He refused to disavow the White House press spokesperson and former Fox reporter, Tony Snow’s remark that the president would not allow federal funds for embryonic because “he thinks murder’s wrong.”

He ended up in the position of having to argue that embryonic stem cell research is taking away a life, not denying that it is murder, and yet arguing that, although federal funds should not be made available, this “murder” should be perfectly legal.

The result is like watching a car crash. Here is the transcript.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to domestic politics. The president vetoed a stem research bill, a bill that’s called for the use of embryos that were obtained in vitro clinics that supporters say would have been discarded. And instead, have the government subsidize research to see if they can use those embryos to find some use of the stem cells for cures for Parkinson’s disease and so forth. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary who speaks for the president, went to the podium at the White House and said this to the press corps and to the nation. Let’s watch.

(Videotape, Tuesday):

MR. TONY SNOW: The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research it’s inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder. He’s one of them.

The simple answer is he thinks murder’s wrong.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Murder. The president believes that using an embryo for stem cell research is murder.

MR. BOLTEN: Let me, let me step back for a second, Tim. Now, I think…

MR. RUSSERT: Because that’s a very important question.

MR. BOLTEN: It is, and, and…

MR. RUSSERT: The president’s spokesman used the word “murder.” Does the president believe the use of an embryo for stem cell research is murder?

MR. BOLTEN: Let me—indulge me here for a moment, and let me, and let me walk through the issue and I, and I will get to your question, because it’s a very complicated, very, very delicate issue, that I think a lot of people misunderstand what the president’s policies were that he first enunciated five years ago.

First, the, the policy announcement that the president made five years ago was not that stem cell research would, would be banned, but rather that federal funding of stem cell research would be banned. Second, it is—and not even all embryonic stem cell research would be banned, just that research that involves the incenting, or the new destruction of fertilized embryos. There’s—this president, in fact, was the first one to permit federal funding to go to any embryonic stem cell research, but only for lines that had been, had already been created where the embryo was already created. The president’s objective in his policy, was to prevent the use of federal funds toward the, the promotion of destroying these fertilized embryos.

Now to your question. It’s a very delicate and difficult balance that the, that the president has tried to strike here between the, the needs and desires of science and the morals and ethics that, that our government leaders are, are charged to, to try to sustain. On the one hand, the president recognizes that embryonic stem cell research has, has promise, unfulfilled as yet, but a, but a great deal of promise. On the other hand, the president believes, as, as do millions and millions of Americans, that that fertilized embryo is a human life that deserves protection. The president recognizes that there are wide differences of opinion on this, and that’s why his policy has been not to prevent that research from going forward altogether, but to prevent your tax dollars and my tax dollars from going to support the destruction of that, that human embryo, because there’s so many of us who believe that that human embryo is a human life that deserves protection, and has the potential to become, become some of the beautiful kids you saw in, in the original clip you showed at the…

MR. RUSSERT: Then if the president believes it is human life, how can he allow private stem cell research to go forward, go forward, if, in fact, that is murder?

MR. BOLTEN: It’s a very, it’s a very difficult balance. I mean, the president recognizes that there are millions of Americans who don’t recognize that as a human life, and that the promise of that research for the saving of life is so important that they, that they want that to go forward. What the president has said is that as far as the federal policy is concerned, no federal funds, your tax dollars and my tax dollars, will go towards promoting the destruction of that human embryo.

MR. RUSSERT: But you’re using federal funds for existing lines, which were of embryos. So were those embryos that the federal government is experimenting on obtained by homicidal means?

MR. BOLTEN: Those, those embryos, those stem cell lines, were already—those embryos were already destroyed, and, and that’s where the president—the president’s policies draw the line. That is that our tax dollars, from the point that the president made his policy statement forward, our tax dollars are not going to go to further incent the destruction of those fertilized embryos. Let me, let me…

MR. RUSSERT: The logic, Mr. Bolten, as people are listening to this, the president is saying no, we can’t use embryos that are going to be discarded by in vitro clinics because, according to a spokesman, that’s murder. But we can use embryos that were existing before I became president, that’s OK. And if you have a private company and you want to use those embryos, that’s OK. Back to the central question: does the president agree with his spokesman, Tony Snow, that the research on the embryo in, in fact, to use that embryo is murder?

MR. BOLTEN: The president thinks that that embryo, that fertilized embryo, is a human life that deserves protection…

MR. RUSSERT: But does he accept or reject the use of the word “murder”?

MR. BOLTEN: I haven’t spoken to him about the use, the use of particular terminology, but the—but let me come back to the fundamental point here, Tim, and that is that there’s, there’s a balance that needs to be struck, and it’s a very difficult balance for, for any president to strike, between, between the needs of allowing science that can be life-saving to go forward, and reflecting the ethics and morals of this society. And as, as far as those, those fertilized human embryos are concerned that are, that are going to be discarded anyway, there was, there was a very moving ceremony, I thought, in the East Room of the White House this week, when the president discussed his stem cell policy. And on stage there with him—you had a clip of it at the top of the show—on stage there with him there were some children who are the products of those fertilized embryos that otherwise would have been, would have been destroyed.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, 128 embryos were adopted. But 400,000 are now not being used, and will be probably discarded. And you’re saying they should not be used for research by the federal government.

MR. BOLTEN: Yes, that is the president’s policy.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you then move to close down in vitro clinics—if, in fact, those embryos are being created and used by private companies for research and the president’s spokesman says that’s murder, and the president said it’s a human life, why not then close down the in vitro fertility clinics? Because they’re creating embryos that, in the president’s view, will be murdered.

MR. BOLTEN: That’s not where the president has, has drawn the balance. He’s drawn the balance with—the line with federal funding, people’s tax dollars not going to—not going to incent the further destruction of the human life. Look, 400,000…

MR. RUSSERT: But he will—he will allow private cell research companies to “destroy human life.”

MR. BOLTEN: That issue isn’t before him. What’s before him is what—the issue of what will federal funds be used for.

Look, those, those 400,000 fertilized…

MR. RUSSERT: But he could take steps to outlaw that.

MR. BOLTEN: Those 400,000 human—fertilized human embryos, I’m sure the president fervently wishes that, that every single one of them is going to get adopted and turn into one of those beautiful kids we saw at the ceremony.

MR. RUSSERT: All 400,000 are going to be adopted?

MR. BOLTEN: No. They’re not likely to be, and that’s, that’s, that’s very sad for this country. But…

MR. RUSSERT: Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, said that adult stem cells show far more promise than embryonic stem cells, and the White House could not identify any scientist who could confirm that. Is—does the president agree with Mr. Rove?

MR. BOLTEN: I’m, I’m no scientist, not, not quantified to speak on it, but I think the point that Karl was getting at is that there are alternative means to achieve some of the promise of the—of the embryonic stem cells that, that scientists…

MR. RUSSERT: No, he said “far more promise.”

MR. BOLTEN: Well…

MR. RUSSERT: Can you—can you cite any scientist who believes that adult stem cells have far more promise than embryonic stem cells?

MR. BOLTEN: Well I can’t cite scientists on either side of it, but what I can tell you is that adult, adult human stem cells have already shown enormous utility in, in the amelioration of disease in this country. Embryonic stem cells have, have yet to fulfill the promise that many see, but, but there—but there is a legitimate promise there, and that’s why the president has struggled so much with that difficult balance…(unintelligible).

MR. RUSSERT: But is there any ev—is there any evidence that you’re aware of, or the president’s aware of, that says that adult stem cells show far more promise than embryonic?

MR. BOLTEN: Adult stem cells have already demonstrated for—in the amelioration of disease…

MR. RUSSERT: So you agree with Mr. Rove.

MR. BOLTEN: I—like I said I’m not—I’m not a scientist and I don’t…

MR. RUSSERT: Well, I don’t think Karl Rove is, either.

MR. BOLTEN: Well, he knows a lot of stuff, but the—look, the, the point here is that there are alternative ways to get to the, the promise that the embryonic stem cells have, and the president, in his announcement this week on, on stem cell policy, also announced that we were going to put extra effort at, at—within our scientific community at NIH into pursuing stem cell research that does not involve the destruction of those fertilized human embryos.

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