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CNN Live Event/Special

Hughes Talks About Bush Stem Cell Decision

Aired August 10, 2001 - 13:08   ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: We need to go right away to Crawford, Texas. Karen Hughes, of course, who speaks for the president out there on the heels of the important decision announced by the president last night in Texas regarding embryonic stem cell research. Karen Hughes being made available in the first press availability here. And we want you to hear from that, so let's hear from Karen Hughes in Crawford, Texas.

KAREN HUGHES, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Hello, everybody. Thank you all for waiting. I'm sorry we're a little late. We were at the ranch with the president, who was doing an interview that will air tonight on "20/20." This, sort of, feels like an old habit. I'm not sure it still feels familiar, and I hope I'm not addicted. It's good to be home in Texas and good to see a lot of you all that I haven't seen in quite a while.

I'm Karen Hughes, counselor to the president. This is Jay Lefkowitz, who I think most of you met last night. Jay is the general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget, and he has been our leading policy expert who has guided us through the debate and deliberations on the stem cell policy as we all thought through its ramifications and worked to advise the president on its ramifications.

President Bush is a leader who has very strong convictions and also a tremendous heart. And I think the American people saw both of those qualities last night. And I think Jay and I and others who worked with him as he arrived at his decision saw both of those qualities on ample display throughout.

As you know, he worked to achieve a solution that recognized the tremendous hopes of those who suffer from terrible illnesses and those who long for a cure, as we all do.

On the other hand, he also has strong moral convictions and felt very strongly throughout the process that there was a moral line we should not cross, and that he would not cross the line of having government funding further sanction or encourage additional destruction of human embryos. And frequently the briefing sessions he would ask, you know, "How do we avoid creating an incentive? How do we make sure that we're not encouraging additional destruction?" And so that's a question that came up a number of times during our meetings.

A couple of things struck me, sitting in on many of the meetings. I did not sit in on all of them. I think Jay did sit in on all of them. Karl attended a number of them. Andy Card attended most of them. We had a number of different people. This is an issue that I think almost everyone who works at the White House, the president asked them their opinion at some point or another.

And not only did he ask your opinion, but he also asked really probing questions about, you know, "What leads you to that conclusion? What ethical considerations did you give that?" He didn't stop at knowing what you thought about this issue, he wanted to know the moral underpinnings, the rationale, the reasons that you held that position. And I think literally virtually everybody who works in the White House has been asked at one point or another on this issue by the president about our positions.

One of the things that struck me during all the meetings was the profound nature of this decision. Almost everyone who came into the Oval Office to talk with the president -- no matter what their position, no matter what side of the issue they took -- talked about the tremendous ramifications.

Several people told him, "This may be the most important decision of your presidency," or, "This is one of the most important decisions you will make. This has more ramifications than almost anything else you will do as president." A number of people made that point to him.

I specifically recall when the juvenile diabetes representatives came in to talk with him, that they very passionately told him, "We are here on behalf of our children"; "I'm here defending my family," one father told him.

And so this was a very profound, very passionate -- this is an issue that evokes very passionate feelings on all sides, and we found that to be true no matter which position different individuals took.

The second thing that struck me was the tremendous divergence of opinion. And the president said last night that he found widespread disagreement, and that is certainly true on almost every aspect of this decision. There was a real lack of consensus. And let me just give you a few examples.

One is that many -- I specifically remember one doctor talking in very excited tones about the great promise of this research, and how this is an exciting time, and he feels we're really on the verge of significant breakthroughs. And then I remember an ethicist and another researcher saying that he's not really sure that the research in this case will live up to its hype.

And so you go from on the one hand this great hope, and on the other hand, what some were calling great hype -- and so a clear divergence of opinion.

The president met with people -- I remember one individual who was pro-choice, yet was opposed to stem cell research. So this was an issue that crossed a lot of the usual boundaries. His rationale was that when an embryo is within a woman's womb, the woman's ethics -- moral rights prevail. Yet when it's independently living as cells in a test tube, that you have to give that cluster of cells the greater moral right. And so that was an example of something I think that shows the unusual alignment.

We also talked with people who were pro-life, yet felt that the stem cell research should go forward.

There was also a lot of disagreement on the science. The president asked almost every scientist and researcher who came in to see him, "How many lines do you think you need?" And there was -- "how many lines are available?" And there was, again, widespread disagreement and a lot of different opinions.

The opinions ranged so much, in terms of how many stem cell lines were available, that the president asked Jay to contact the NIH and to have them conduct a study to try to get a more definitive number of stem cell lines, which were, in fact, ethically derived. And by that -- I think, Jay briefed you on that last night -- we mean that the donors gave informed consent that there was no financial inducement offered and that they were developed for reproductive purposes, not for research purposes.

And so, NIH reported to the president, in the Oval Office last Thursday, that they had determined that there were at least 60, and they believe probably more than 60 stem cell lines, which were available and which met all these ethical criteria. And that was the first time that we had heard that number; once they had done their survey.

And so, I think that many scientists, even today, until the president made his remarks last night, are probably not aware of that. And that was a survey that was done at his request, because we were receiving such conflicting information.

Most of you all know -- I'll be glad to answer questions and start the process -- I thought I'd tell you about a few meetings. The president had lunch with Secretary Thompson on May 8, where this issue was discussed. And think that probably marks the beginning of when you all begin to cover it on a pretty regular basis and to ask him and us about it. He, during the months of May, June and July, frequently asked people -- even in the context of completely different meetings -- about stem cell research and about their opinions.

At one point in a meeting in the Oval Office, I remember we asked him, "Mr. President, would you like us to set up some formal meetings for you to meet with some of the advocacy groups, some ethicists, some of the researchers?" And he said, "Yes." And based on that, we scheduled a number of, I guess, more formal stem cell meetings, where people came into the Oval Office. And I'm going to outline those for you.

I, again, caution you: These were only formal meetings, and they began in July because that was the point at which we asked him.

He had a number of meetings, and I'll go through a few examples of those after I talk about these formal meetings. On Monday, July 9, he met with representatives of National Right to Life and heard their perspectives.

That afternoon, he met with representatives of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to hear their perspective. And later that afternoon, he met with two bioethicists, and I'll come back to that because, from my perspective, I think that was one of the most significant meetings that he had.

He also met on Monday, July 16, with Dr. John Mendelsohn who is the president of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and a well-known medical researcher.

On August 2, he met in his office with scientists from the National Institutes of Health. And I'll get you a list of all of these names. And that afternoon, he met with LeRoy Walters, who is a bioethicist from the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University.

Now those were the formal meetings, but they are by no means the extent of the types of discussions that the president had. I went around the office and literally asked folks to try to remember different occasions when this issue came up.

At the Race for the Cure rally, in the East Room, the president had a discussion with Secretary Thompson and Dr. Richard Klausner, the director of the National Cancer Institute at NIH, seeking their advice on stem cell.

At a July 11 meeting on the patients' bill of rights with a group of medical groups and doctors, the president went around the room and asked advice from this group of physicians about the scientific potential of this research, about their views on the ethical considerations, about their views about what the best public policy would be.

He had numerous meetings with members of Congress where this issue was discussed. It came up at the House GOP conference on patients' bill of rights at the Capitol. It came up in an Oval Office meeting with members of Congress on the patients' bill of rights. It came up at a House and Senate Republican leadership meeting in the Cabinet Room. It was discussed at a GOP conference meeting on patients' bill of rights.

A couple of other examples of how much on the agenda this issue was, when the president went to Notre Dame for the commencement speech, he spoke with the president of Notre Dame and a number of scientists and found a divergence of opinion at Notre Dame about this issue. The next day at Yale University he talked with Dr. Harold Varmus about this issue, who subsequently met a couple of times, I believe, with our chief of staff, Andy Card.

We were discussing this issue last night in the trailer, and one of the doctors in the White House medical unit told Jay that at a birthday get-together for someone in the medical unit several weeks ago, the president had done around the room and asked the doctors from the White House medical unit their positions and why, and the ethical foundation. I've looked through some of my notebooks, and found a note from a -- well, I'll say, a meeting on patient protection became a meeting on stem cell. The president, as I recall, stopped and said, "Well, OK, I want to get your position on stem cell." And that day, he was thinking particularly about one of the questions he talked about last night. He said, if we're going to -- if these embryos are going to be destroyed anyway, what is the rationale not to use them to save life?

And so, that was a discussion that my notes referred to from -- I think it was sometime fairly early in July.

I think the meeting -- we all talked the other day, and I think the meeting that stands out as the meeting at which a lot of the president's thinking began to crystallize was a meeting on July the 9th, with two bioethicists, Dr. Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, who is going to chair the president's Council on Bioethics, and Dr. Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center for Bioethics. It was a very wide-ranging discussion, and I'm going to read to you from my notes the way the president opened that discussion. And I think it will sound very familiar, because it really formed the foundation of the statement the president gave to the nation last night.

He said, "I must confess I am wrestling with a difficult decision. It's a difficult issue for me. On one hand, it offers so much hope; on the other, so much despair. I worry about a culture that devalues life. I think my job is to encourage respect for life. On the other hand, I believe technologies and science will help solve a lot of problems, and I have great hope for cures."

So I think that hearing that -- those are my notes from the meeting with the ethicist, that's the way he opened the meeting. As I recall, the ethicists assured him, "You are not alone. There are a lot of people who, the more they know about this issue, the more complex they realize it is and the more ramifications it has."

During that meeting, they discussed a wide range of ethical issues. I know some of you have asked whether these ethicists recommended positions to the president.

That's not my recollection. They basically helped him think through the different ethics. He asked questions, they responded, they gave him their perspective, their thoughts, but they really didn't come in and say, "Here, Mr. President, is what we think you should do."

I really didn't hear -- except for the two advocacy groups -- the right-to-life and the National -- the juvenile diabetes group, those are really the only two groups that came in to advocate a specific course of action. Otherwise, I think that the people who came in, the doctors, the researchers, the ethicists, were helping to guide the president in helping him think through this issue.

The meeting with the bioethicists was the first in which I recall pretty specific discussion about the ethics of using the existing stem cell lines. And there was some discussion about whether that was different and then going forward with research on embryos that had not yet been destroyed. And I think the recommendations from the ethicists was that, yes, that was a different matter and they -- was there some discussion of the chicken pox precedents at that occasion?


HUGHES: people believe that it may have been developed from aborted fetal tissue. And obviously, that is something that a lot of people oppose on moral grounds.

Yet once the chicken pox vaccine had been developed and there was no taking back the research or the decision that led to the research, many religious leaders decided the best public policy and spoke out and said that the best course of action was to go forward and use the vaccine in the hopes of saving other lives. So there is some precedent for the type of approach that the president took and that was one of the things that was discussed at this meeting with ethicists.

The other meeting that I think was very significant was the meeting with the National Institutes of Health last week, where the president was assured about the large number of existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision had already been made and which were available for scientific research and, we hope, great progress. And I think that was a -- I did not attend that meeting -- Jay did, if you have additional questions about that. But I think the president, when I spoke to him later that day, told me that he was very interested in learning that there were such a large number available. It was a larger number than we had previously thought or been told.

With that, I'll be happy -- Jay or I will be happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Karen, I've never known you or the president to detail the background of the decision like this in such laborious detail. Why does the president think it's important to share all of this with the American people?

HUGHES: Well, I think there's a great deal of interest. It's part of the process of informing you and the public. I was told -- I was on vacation last week, as many of you know, a real vacation, not the kind you have here in Crawford where you work all the time -- but I was on vacation last week and I was told by my office there was a great deal of interest in this.

I did a very similar background briefing when the president chose Vice President Cheney, and went through all the thinking process. So I think that on major decisions that is something that we do have some track record of trying to explain to the American people and to you all what factors went into the president's thinking.

QUESTION: On this in particular, was there some sense that a leader who in the past, you've said it before, often doesn't like to get past, you know, an executive summary, doesn't want to get into, you know, into detailed discussions on certain matters, that he delved so deeply into this? I mean, what's the significance in his mind, what does it say about him, what does he believe it says about him, what does he want people to know about him?

HUGHES: Well, I think, again, that having watched him go through this process, I very much respect the way he arrived at this decision.

I'm not sure that it's terrifically -- it was more time- consuming, it's very complex, I'm not sure it was tremendously different than other decisions. The president does, I have always said, get a lot more input than he is given credit for.

I frequently found that during the campaign, when he would receive a briefing book overnight, the reason he didn't want to discuss it the next day was because he'd already read it and he didn't want to rehash what was in it, he wanted to go to questions that had arisen from it. And I think Jay has had that experience, and most of us who work with the president on policy have had that experience.

I forgot to mention these books. A few people have asked about the books that were on the table next to the president during his address last night. These were the books, and these were the books that -- this is the National Institutes of Health report on the science that was prepared at the request of Secretary Tommy Thompson when the president asked that we look in-depth into the science.

I think that was in March of this year. Maybe in February of this year.

And so this is the report that came out right as we were about to go to Europe in July, from the National Institutes of Science.

And this is a briefing book that Jay prepared for the president and members of our senior staff that has a very balanced view of all the different arguments, ethical arguments, legal issues, scientific issues, background papers, on this very complex issue.

QUESTION: The decision was particularly harshly criticized this morning by some conservative groups -- the Eagle Forum among them. I'm wondering if you could respond to that criticism. And do you believe that in the past seven months you've paid enough attention to the conservative base in the Republican Party to weather this storm?

HUGHES: The president -- and I heard him several times in the Oval Office, when people tried to bring up political considerations about this decisions, the president cut them off immediately, and frankly admonished them a little bit, and said this is not a political decision. This is a public policy decision. This is an ethical decision. This was not, for him, a political decision.

And I think one of the things you learn as president is that you're not able to make all people happy all the time. He, throughout this process, wanted to arrive at a decision that he personally felt comfortable with, based on his recognition of the important public policy ramifications and on his own core convictions and his own moral compass. And I think that he is very comfortable that he has arrived at that position. And he hopes that those on all sides of the issue would listen to his arguments and think through the ramifications. Again, this is an issue on which we found a very great divergence of opinion, and he feels he has arrived at a solution that both offers the hope of great scientific progress without crossing a threshold moral line.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) said it's the wrong decision morally, scientifically. They also said that he would have shown much more leadership if he had initiated a total ban on the research. I'm just wondering if you could respond to those criticisms in particular.

HUGHES: Well, I respectfully disagree. And I understand that people have strong convictions on a lot of different sides of this issue. But we feel that President Bush made the right moral decision. He feels that he made the right ethical decision in permitting research to go forward to serve a great public good, without crossing the fundamental moral line of having government sanction the destruction of additional human embryos. And so he feels that he found a solution that achieved a strong balance without crossing that threshold moral line.

QUESTION: This process was conducted with a great deal of secrecy. I wonder if you could comment on why you did it that way, and also, the timing of the decision.

HUGHES: Do you mean that the meetings were not publicized? I think the point of the meetings that the president had were to help inform the president and to help him think through the ramifications of this issue, not to generate a great deal of publicity in advance of him making his decision. So that is the reason that the meetings were private meetings, as part of the process of helping him to make an informed decision.

He asked so many people about it that I don't think it could really fairly be characterized as any type of secret process. I know that every time most of walked near the Oval Office or on to the Air Force One, he would ask about some aspect of this. I saw him personally ask members of Congress, ask visitors to his office who were there for different reasons.

I saw him, in fact, pull a doctor -- when the America's Promise group was in the Rose Garden, he spotted a doctor that he knows from Georgetown, a neonatal specialist. And asked him to come into the Oval Office, and spent 15 minutes talking with him about umbilical cord research and what he thought about stem cell research. So I think this was a process in which the president sought a great deal of public input.

I'm sorry, your second question?

QUESTION: It seemed to happen very abruptly. Can you explain the timing for us?

HUGHES: Well, the president said all along he intended to announce the decision when he felt comfortable with the decision. He had meetings up through the end of last week. And as you know, at the end of last week it was a very busy time with Congress preparing to leave town. They were still working on legislation.

I think he wanted to come home, give some thought to this very important decision for a few days. He had arranged for Jay and I to come in an meet with him on Wednesday afternoon. And that is the first time he told -- we had had some discussions and I had some sense of the direction he was heading. But the first time he actually gave me the word that he was ready to go forward, was at that meeting on Wednesday afternoon, after we had met. He said, "Let's go forward." Now, we had, obviously, discussed various options before that. We had discussed the idea of a broadcast to the nation, because he wanted the American people to hear this decision from him.

And so, we had discussed all that. But the first time that he actually said, "I'm ready to go forward; let's go forward" was on Wednesday afternoon, here.

QUESTION: Could you put a list out of the meeting -- of the meeting participants?

HUGHES: (OFF-MIKE) a list out of the people who met at these actual formal sessions that I just mentioned.

QUESTION: You talk about a quote, "a personal decision and a presidential decision." To what extent was the president guided almost entirely by his own personal religious beliefs? And was there any point at which he felt like he needed to set those aside and make a decision apart from his personal views?

HUGHES: Well, obviously that's a very complex question. I think a person's core beliefs, a person's faith, is an important part of the way that person lives their life and the way they approach any public policy decision. So I think it's hard to separate your core principles from a decision that you make. And so, obviously, his core principles were an important part of this decision.

He felt that there was a clear line that we should not cross, and that is that he felt that he should not allow government, through taxpayer funds, to sanction any further destruction of human life.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) clear, then why did it take all this time and all these discussions? That seems to be a fairly easy decision.

HUGHES: I think people will respect the fact that he wanted to carefully think through all the different ramifications, to understand all the science. And, as I said, some of the science was unclear, even until last Thursday. And I'm still hearing, you know, differing views today, that -- we actually believe -- I think Jay told me earlier today that the NIH actually believes that once this is public, there may, in fact, be more stem cell lines which already exist, which we don't know about.

And, as you know, once these stem cell lines are developed, they are able to replicate cells and exist, we believe, indefinitely. And so they produce an ongoing supply of cells on which scientists are able to conduct research. So this has been a fact-finding mission as well as a detailed discussion of philosophy and ethics. QUESTION: Now that the president has made his decision, do you sense that there's a great burden off his shoulders, that there's a great sense of relief that the decision has been made and now he can move on to other things?

HUGHES: That implies -- I've seen the word "agonized" used. I would not use that word. I'm not chastising anybody. I don't think I would use that word and I don't think the president would.

This was a difficult decision, and it is clearly one that he thought through very carefully. He realized its huge ramifications. But "agonized" implies this hand-wringing, and I never got that sense.

The president was very steady. He was very eager to learn all that he could about this issue, to hear different opinions, to think through the ethical ramifications, the public policy ramifications, the research ramifications. But I would not describe -- I think it was a very steady, deliberative process.

Clearly, it was a difficult decision for him, and people have asked me whether I thought it was the most difficult decision. I'm not sure I would characterize it as the most. I mean, I have watched him go through difficult death penalty decisions; difficult decisions on legislation as governor of Texas. But clearly, this is one of the most difficult decisions,

And I think this will be an ongoing issue, actually. I think one of the reasons he created the council is because he recognizes, as he said last night, that embryonic stem cell research is really the leading edge of a new frontier that has the potential of revolutionizing science and medicine. And so I think this will be an issue that will continue to foster a lot of public discussion and debate.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) feels great relief now that the decision has been made?

HUGHES: I wouldn't use that word. I think he is comfortable with his decision. And I think that he feels very comfortable that he has thought through and arrived at a decision that he feels is right for public policy and right in terms of ethics.

QUESTION: There was a great deal of skepticism in the scientific community that there actually are 60 viable, robust stem cell lines out there that researchers here will have access to. Did you give any thought to discussing this with some key scientists in advance so that they didn't feel like this was being sprung on them and that they -- you know, they're still very skeptical now.

HUGHES: He did, in fact, discuss with several scientists -- and again, we found a wide variance in opinions about how many lines were available. And I'm going to defer to Jay and let him address that question because he was at the NIH meeting.

LEFKOWITZ: Yes, the NIH has, as I said last night, been spending a great deal of time contacting, one on one, in conversations, leading scientists from around the world, from laboratories that are conducting this research.

It turns out, and I confirmed this this morning with the leading scientist at NIH, who is collecting this information, that there are now in excess of 60 -- they think at least 65 stem cell lines that exist around the world. About 30 of them appear to be in laboratories in the United States, derived in the United States. The remaining ones from around the world.

They are in varying stages of development, and one of the things that the NIH will do, as it puts together its registry of stem cell lines that comply with the president's three criteria -- no financial inducement, informed consent and creation for reproductive purposes, not for research -- is pull together this registry so that researchers all around the world and researchers who will be applying to the NIH for grants will be able to know what's out there and decide what they want to do research on.


LEFKOWITZ: I said last night that I was not aware precisely of how many stem cell lines of the 60 that we were talking about were derived in the United States. We did some research, I spoke with the NIH director of the Office of Science and Technology today, and I can confirm for you that approximately 30 have been derived in laboratories in the United States. And I would certainly suggest that you contact the NIH, who will be prepared to answer specific questions about these laboratories.

Obviously, the information that the NIH has collected is, in some respects, confidential and proprietary, because these are private companies that have done this research, and the NIH will be aggressively working with these companies to negotiate the appropriate material transfer agreements as part of creating this national registry.

QUESTION: You won't release the names of these labs?

LEFKOWITZ: I think the NIH is prepared today and has the consent to release the names of a number of these laboratories around the world, including in the United States, that have conducted this research and have successfully developed viable stem cell lines. I don't know that they'll be able to release all of the names, simply as a matter of respect for the proprietary information that they've received from these private companies.

QUESTION: Did the president at any point in this process express concern that this might drive scientists out of the public sector into the private sector, where his rules aren't going to apply, and that the net effect might be more destruction of potential human life?

LEFKOWITZ: I think throughout the process -- and the president had really spent quite a bit of time looking hard at the scientific issues, at the prospects for cures and therapies, also talking to scientists who have acknowledged that this may not turn out nearly as successfully as a lot of people hope today. And one of the things he was very conscious of is to what extent there will be, perhaps, incentives or disincentives for private sector derivation.

I think one of the things the president was comforted by, by the fact that there are so many existing stem cell lines is that, not only will there not be an incentive for further private derivation, but, in fact, I think, because the NIH is really one of the biggest demand engines for basic research in medical and science technology that, in fact, there will probably be a disincentive now for a lot of future destruction by the private sector of these human embryos.

QUESTION: How many of those lines are generally available for research today?

LEFKOWITZ: I couldn't tell you precisely how many lines are available today. We expect that an overwhelming number and, perhaps, all of the existing lines will be available in short order. I think the NIH's schedule is to put this registry together in the next month or two. And then to receive grant applications from researchers who will, obviously, identify which stem cell lines they're looking to work with. And I would expect that by the very beginning, the early part of the next calender year, the NIH will be in a position to dispense federal grants for these research projects.

QUESTION: You said that these are in various stages of development. Will the president preclude funding of research on lines that were derived from embryos destroyed since he took office six months ago?

LEFKOWITZ: The president announced his decision after a great deal of thought yesterday. And the president has basically made a determination that as of today or as of yesterday, in fact, when he made his decision, to the extent that there are existing stem cell lines or stem cell lines created and derived from embryos that have already been destroyed -- it may be that there are embryos that have been destroyed where the stem cell lines are in a development process and they are not yet fully viable -- but if they are developed from embryos that were destroyed prior to the time when the president made his decision, then they will fall within the national registry, provided that they meet the other criterion.

QUESTION: But doesn't that make the possibility that he might be approving research on something that he believes to be a potential human life that was ended during his term of office while he was deliberating on this?

LEFKOWITZ: You can start or stop a stopwatch at any point in time. The president didn't rush to a decision. He thought long and hard about it. He wanted to make sure that he was making a decision not only based on serious consultation and thought about the moral and ethical issues, but also based on the best science available and his understanding of the science.

And that's why he spent a great deal of time reviewing the scientific papers, looking at and reading the NIH's report. And then following up with the NIH several weeks after they concluded that report, talking to one of the principal authors of that report, as well as some of the leading laboratory scientists at the NIH. He made his decision and he announced his decision yesterday.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the official cut-off date?

LEFKOWITZ: As of yesterday when the president made his decision, if the embryos have not been destroyed prior to the time the president made his decision -- and this is something the NIH will investigate as it puts its registry together -- they will not qualify for federal funding for stem cell research.

QUESTION: Can you comment on the analysis that this decision, along with some other issues like immigration or affirmative action, are showing a new and more centrist turn in the presidency?

HUGHES: Well, I think, again, the president made this decision on its merits and thought through the science and all the ramifications, both public policy and ethical ramifications. I don't think you should view this decision in any context other than a decision on the merits of this issue.

QUESTION: You laid out all the outreach that the president did -- seeking opinions, advice, information. How does that square with his disdain for polls?

HUGHES: Well, I think, again, he was seeking the people's rationale for their decisions -- how they approached this issue. I did hear on a couple of occasions people say to him, "Well, 65 percent of the people..." And he would always stop them and say, "This is not a political issue."

I think clearly this is a decision he made based on the science, based on the research that he did, based on what he felt was best public policy, not based on...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) have suggested that one of the big factors here is that there was no consensus. He polled everybody informally, in his own way, sought out advice, and he couldn't find agreement. Was that a major factor for why he felt it was important to hit it right down the middle?

HUGHES: Well, again, I think what he did -- I don't agree with the characterization of polling people. I think, again, as part of the process, you know, as part of the process, as you always heard him say about polls, you can achieve the answer you want based on the question you ask.

And that was not what he was trying to do in this case. What he was trying to do was to really probe people's feelings and thoughts and justification for why they felt the way they did about a certain issue. And so that's what he was doing throughout this process.

QUESTION: I don't mean to throw you off, I didn't mean polling, but I'm saying he sought out all this advice. He couldn't find consensus. Was that what led him to believe that steering a middle course was the only way to go?

HUGHES: Well, again, I think that one of the things that did strike us was that there was not much consensus on this issue. And one of the things that I think is impressive about what the president did is that he was able to arrive at a solution that both addressed the concerns of those who want scientific progress and want cures -- and I think that's all of us throughout America and the world -- and those who have a deep moral concern about drawing a bright moral line about government sanctioning destruction of human life.

QUESTION: But he struck a balance rather than choosing a side. Why did he do that?

HUGHES: Because he thinks that's the right public policy and ethical decision for the country.

QUESTION: You talked about a divergence of opinion. Everywhere he looked he found conflicting opinions. Apparently there was a divergence of opinion among his top aides. Can you shed some light on that?

HUGHES: I think, generally, I can just say that I think he heard a lot of different views from a lot of different people. I hesitate to get into different advice that people individually gave the president. I've seen my name bandied about some. The only person who knows what I recommended to the president is the president. So anything you've seen otherwise is likely wrong, or at least not knowledgeable.

So I think the president did seek the advice of a lot of different people -- not just senior aides.

I mean, I sat in a number of meetings where he brought this -- and not just people who had an expertise on this issue. In an economics briefing, once, I think he startled the room by going around the room and asking them, "Anybody here have any impressions about stem cell research?"

One of the things we found, as I said, as he went through this process, is that the more you learn, the more difficult some of these questions become. A lot of people think they know where they come out. I had somebody who works in my office mention this to me, that going in, this person thought they knew where they stood, and the more they learned, they weren't sure. And I think that's been true of a lot of Americans.

And particularly I think during the midst of this process, as you recall, the news was first reported that scientists had actually created an embryo solely to experiment on it. And I think that gave a lot of people pause.

QUESTION: How did he process all this information? Can you shed some light on his process of sorting through all of this, in his down- time perhaps? When did he go through it all?

HUGHES: I think he really kind of -- Jay and I were sharing stories about Jay got some calls at home at night. You might relay those stories. LEFKOWITZ: Yes. I think the president spent a great deal of time, obviously work-time, thinking about this, bringing it up in various meetings. I know he also talked to a lot of people on the staff. At one point in time, he was out at some event in Virginia and he asked two of the members of the staff who simply had been staffing that event to ride back in the limo with him back to the White House, and he raised the issue and solicited their opinion.

I got a phone call one morning, early in the morning because he had thought about an issue, wanted to press me a little bit. He had been reading some of the paperwork, and wanted to press me on it and get me to focus on how fulsome is this information? Are there other approaches that we can look at here? How much do we know about the science?

And it was really at the president's direct instigation that I spoke to the NIH and asked them to press further, to continue even though they had published their report, to really exhaust by going, in a sense, door to door with the scientific community around the world. So I think when you say, how did the president process this information, the president is constantly filtering information that he gets, assessing it, probing further and then reflecting on it. And as he did in this instance, he came to a place where he felt he was doing the right thing. It wasn't an issue of moderating between different views, because there were views here, there were views here, there were lots of views all over the place.

He came to his view, which happens to be a view that balances his strong commitment for the potential and the promise of scientific research, with his equally strong commitment for the dignity of human life, recognizing that when we take the seeds of the next generation and just turn them into tools for our own generation, that's a dangerous step. And this decision that he made, I think, is actually a very strong statement of where he stands both with respect to the promise of science and with respect to his core philosophical beliefs.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) line that the president wouldn't cross. Is it fair to say that he never considered harvesting stem cells from leftover embryos at fertility clinics?

HUGHES: I'm not sure that's fair to say. I think he gave thought and consideration to all options throughout this process. I think he fully explored and asked questions. I heard him ask a lot of questions about all kinds of options. So I think he did explore and consider other options, and ultimately concluded that that was the moral line that he felt that he could not cross.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the letter he sent on May 18 saying he would make no decision that would destroy a living embryo.

HUGHES: That's his consistent position, and it's consistent with the position he announced last night. That does not preclude him thinking through -- again, this is an issue about which we all have learned a great deal over the last several months, and he clearly thought through different options. In the end, his conclusion is absolutely consistent with what he has felt all along, and that is that he does not feel it is appropriate for government to sanction further destruction of human embryos.

QUESTION: Did he consider an option that would not have fit with that (OFF-MIKE)

HUGHES: I'd say he thought through, and I don't know whether the word "consider" or what you're -- he thought through and was presented a variety of different options.

QUESTION: Can you tell us who the president called after he made his final decision? If he's made other phone calls today? And if he personally was reaching out to some of the biggest critics of this decision, including Catholics, so is he considering writing a letter or sending a message to the pope?

HUGHES: Yesterday in the morning, and I'm not sure exactly what time, but he told me in the morning he called Secretary Thompson to discuss with him his decision. Yesterday afternoon, he called Dr. Leon Kass. Jay had talked with Dr. Kass about the idea of him chairing the council. The president called to formally thank him for agreeing to do that and to discuss with him a little bit, you know, what his decision was.


HUGHES: I'm sorry. That was Thursday. Thursday morning he called Secretary Thompson. Thursday afternoon, he called Dr. Kass. This morning, I am not certain. He'd been pretty busy until we left him to come over here. I'm sure that he will be on the phone, that he will be discussing this further with other people.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) particularly, the Catholics are calling this decision unacceptable. Is he planning any message to the pope (OFF-MIKE)

HUGHES: There are not any specific plans. But again, I wouldn't want to rule it out, because the president does frequently like to talk with people himself by telephone and is in frequent contact from here.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the decision doesn't go far enough, that it won't allow for enough research. Is the president prepared to veto any attempts by Congress to push this research further?

HUGHES: I think we'd have to look at anything that was done by Congress at that time. But the president made his position, I think, quite clear last night.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) where would the president's moral compass take him if, as a lot of (OFF-MIKE) NIH today, who said, actually, they don't know if the stem cell lines can regenerate indefinitely. So where would the president's moral compass take him if that proved to be the case?

HUGHES: You can ask what-ifs all day long and this issue is fraught with what-ifs. I can tell you, the president has given it very careful consideration, has thought through all the ramifications and has concluded that he is comfortable with the solution he arrived at, which is allowing research to go forward on the existing stem cell lines where the life-and-death decision has already been made. But he is not comfortable with using taxpayer funds to sanction any further destruction of human embryos.

QUESTION: On Iraq, can you just tell us how the president responds to the (OFF-MIKE) action?

HUGHES: I'll refer you to the press office of the Department of Defense on that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) numbers that the NIH found about existing stem lines. Jay was saying they comforted the president with that. So was that extra number, that larger universe of cells out there, was that something that was, kind of, a breaking point for him this decision that allowed him to feel comfortable and good about this decision?

LEFKOWITZ: I think, as Karen said, this is has been a process and the president has been looking and exploring all different aspects of this research. And, of course, when you've been told for weeks and weeks and read in the press that there are a half a dozen or a dozen or even two dozen stem cell lines, and then you learn that there are actually more than 60, I think that's exciting news.

I think it's important to hear that, to understand that, because clearly that does provide a great deal of opportunity for research. And when these leading laboratory researchers came and told the president that, they were saying, as scientists, they think that would create a tremendous amount of opportunity for them.

I think the president was clearly pleased to hear that information. I don't think that was necessarily a pivotal point for the president.

QUESTION: Karen, you said that you had a sense of where he was leaning. At what point did you get that sense? And did you ever get the sense that he was seriously contemplating banning all funding?

HUGHES: I don't think I ever got a sense that he had made a decision that was anything other than what he has arrived at conclusively. Again, as I looked back on it, I think that I could tell during the meeting with the ethicists, where they explored the idea of the ethical differences between using existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decisions had already been made versus sanctioning further destruction, I could tell that he was intrigued; that he felt that that was -- I could tell that he felt somewhat comfortable, but there was still a lot of work to be done.

He still had a lot of questions to ask. There was still a lot of science that we didn't know about. So, I think it was more of a gradual process.

I think, again, in my mind, I would identify that meeting as one of the pivotal moments, but there were additional meetings. And I arrived here, you know, again, feeling that I knew the approach that he was going to take, but not really certain until he told Jay and I, "Let's go forward."

QUESTION: Was there any fear or discussion about other governments in other countries maybe getting a leg up on the United States and those industries because they wouldn't have the restrictions you're placing on them?

HUGHES: There was some general discussion, and one of the things the president addressed in his remarks last night is that the United States has a long and proud tradition of being a leader in these advances. And I think one of the things the president was searching was an ethical way, as Jay just addressed, to conduct this research that would discourage some of the unethical approaches, such as scientists creating embryos solely for the purpose of experimentation.

Thank you all.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) and he doesn't have to be burdened by it?

HUGHES: He has some work to do on defense and immigration, the Middle East and a host of other issues.

Thank you all very much.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) picture for us for tonight, just to see him?

HUGHES: I don't know what the plans are. I'll check with Scott to see if we can do that.

Thank you all very much.

CHEN: Really inside the thinking and believing of the White House background from Karen Hughes, who of course speaks for the president. they are down at the western White House, as it is now being called in Crawford, Texas as Mr. Bush continues month outside of the beltway down in Crawford visiting his home ranch and of course making that very important announcement, important decision, about his announcement regarding embryonic stem cell research.

Karen Hughes giving what reporters noted as quite an extensive and detailed background on the input into Mr. Bush's decision, making -- talking about the number of very extensive meetings and informal consultations that the president has had since early May regarding this particular issue, reaching to all elements, all those with interest, all those with voice on the subject of embryonic stem cell research whether from the national right-to-life group or different researchers, medical people, doctors, others who had specific interest in this particular question.

And Karen Hughes saying that all of those who are close advisers to the president were repeatedly asked for their opinions as well. Karen Hughes speaking really the fist big backgrounder after the president's announcement came last night. Certainly you are going to see follow up on that.

But even as the reporters are noting today, this is quite an extensive and detailed briefing into how the decision was reached. We are going to hear more about it later.