As part of his week-long European tour, Bush and his family met with the pope at his summer retreat, Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.
The Roman Catholic leader took Bush and his aides by surprise when he raised the controversial subject of using stem cells from human embryos for research purposes.
The Catholic Church condemns stem cell research using embryos because they are destroyed in the process, but is not opposed to stem cell research where cells are taken from body tissue.
“Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide and, most recently, proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos, destined to destruction in the process,” he said quietly, stooped over in his chair.
“A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death,” the pope continued, “in defending the right to life, in law and through a vibrant culture of life, America can show the world the path to a truly humane future, in which man remains the master, not the product, of his technology.”
The pope is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, one of the many diseases that scientists believe could be treated as a result of stem cell research.
Later in the afternoon Bush addressed the pontiff’s comments, saying he will take the point of view into consideration as he decides whether to allow federal funding of the research. He said he will try to “balance value and respect for life with the promise of science, and the hope of saving life.”
Aides say that Bush has been deliberating seriously over the ethically divisive decision. Allowing the funding would alienate some of America’s 44 million Catholics, who make up one of the most important swing groups in the U.S. electorate. The rest of the pro-life community is not clearly decided on the issue.