POPE seeking common ground in first meeting with President Bush

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (AP) _ Pope John Paul II urged President Bush in their first meeting together to bar creation of human embryos for medical research, saying Monday that America has a moral responsibility

Monday, July 23rd 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (AP) _ Pope John Paul II urged President Bush in their first meeting together to bar creation of human embryos for medical research, saying Monday that America has a moral responsibility to reject actions that ``devalue and violate human life.''

The pontiff and Bush met behind closed doors at the papal summer residence Castel Gandolfo in the foothills south of Rome.

John Paul, stooped and frail in his chair, afterward read a statement to Bush and his entourage.

The pope lamented:

``Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the world, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide, and, most recently, proposals for the creations for research purposes of human embryos destined to destruction in the process.''

``A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception to natural death,'' the pope added.

Bush thanked the pope for reminding Americans that their prosperity ``must be matched with compassion and moral purpose.''

``And always to all you have carried the gospel of life, which welcomes the stranger and protects the weak and the innocent,'' said Bush, who also read from a prepared statement. ``Every nation _ including my own _ benefits from hearing and heeding this message of conscience.''

The pontiff's remarks, which Vatican officials a day earlier had not expected, touched upon Bush's pending decision whether to permit federal funds for potentially breakthrough medical research on stem cells from human embryos.

In contrast to the specific objection John Paul raised, embryos involved in the research that Bush is considering are not created for scientific study but are taken from fertility clinic surpluses that would otherwise be discarded.

Bush sat ramrod straight in his chair, hands folded in his lap. His entourage included first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Barbara, 19. Though Methodists, like the president, the Bush women both followed old Catholic tradition and covered their hair with black lace mantillas.

Bush had not planned to ask the pope about the emotional stem-cell question that divides disease sufferers, scientists, ethicists and anti-abortion activists back home.

He has promised a decision soon on federal funding for the research, but aides say no announcement is imminent.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy that John Paul heads is staunchly opposed to such studies because they involve the destruction of surplus embryos being discarded by fertility clinics.

Also on Monday, Bush was meeting with Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi before attending a dinner held by Ciampi at the Quirinale Palace in Rome.

Ciampi greeted Bush in a cobblestone courtyard at the palace, which was built on the summit of Quirinale as a summer residence for popes at the end of the 16th century. The two leaders stood together at the end of a red carpet while the U.S. and Italian national anthems were played.

Bush, a Methodist who has been courting Catholic voters, has spoken of how much he looked forward to meeting the frail 81-year-old John Paul, whose 23-year pontificate has spanned five American presidencies.

Bush's papal audience promised to be much more cordial than any former President Clinton ever enjoyed _ primarily because this new American president shares John Paul's opposition to abortion rights.

In an unusually sharp attack, the Vatican had condemned Clinton's veto of a bill banning certain late-term abortions as ``shameful.''

In contrast, it welcomed the new administration's move to bar U.S. funds to international family planning groups involved in abortion.

And it would certainly be receptive to Bush's initiative to bring religious groups into government-funded charity efforts.

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