Posted on August 12, 2001


W For Wobbly

Bush bollixes stem cell decision


Daniel Clark



Throughout the first six months of his presidency, just as in the 2000 campaign, it has often been suggested that George W. Bush's greatest strength lies in the low expectations that others hold for him. If that's ever been true, it's true in regard to his recent decision on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

W for Wobbly

In his nationally televised prime-time speech, President Bush revised his campaign promise to oppose research that involved the destruction of human embryos. He instead agreed to fund the ongoing work on stem cells from embryos which had been destroyed already, while assuring viewers that he would not approve funding for the destruction of any new embryos.

The response to the president's change in position from some right-to-life activists has been positively surreal. Two different representatives from the National Right to Life Committee have declared themselves to be "delighted" with his decision. An NRLC press release gives a wholehearted endorsement, while noting that, "Neither President Bush nor the federal government had anything to do with the destruction of those embryos" which will be the subjects of the taxpayer-funded research.

An Aug. 10th article on Bush's speech by Robert Goldberg in National Review Online was entitled "Two Thumbs Up." Dr. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, agreed, saying, "I give the president's decision generally a 'thumbs up' ... I think he found a solution."

To hear these people tell it, you'd never know that President Bush had ceded ground from his original position. This explains the strategic timing of his decision, that it gave his supporters plenty of time to begin fearing the worst. In order to perceive his most recent pronouncement as a victory, their expectations must have been for nothing short of an unconditional surrender.

Although Bush now says he opposes any further killing of embryos for stem cell research, he no longer has any solid principle on which to anchor that position, since he is condoning previous commissions of that exact same act. If new embryos killed in private labs produce new stem cell lines, which scientists will surely say offer promising possibilities for research, he'll have no logical reason to deny them federal funds. The difference is merely temporal. Today's live embryos are tomorrow's already-dead-anyway embryos. It cannot be wrong to kill embryos for research in the future if it has not been wrong to have done so in the past.

This is where Bush, intentionally or not, left enough weasel room for a Clintonian distinction to be made. He has told America that "I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made." Until the destruction of human embryos in the private sector is made illegal, and that time is nowhere in the imaginable future, there will be lots of people busy at work making those life-and-death decisions. If this proposal translates into a piece of legislation allowing the use of stem cells from embryos that have already been killed, then, depending on how it's worded, it might not draw a distinction between an embryo killed before the law has been enacted and one killed after. This would lead us back near the Clinton policy that Bush had previously repealed, which gave taxpayer funds to private labs for stem cells taken from killed embryos, then tried to dissociate the federally funded research from the killing.

The legislature's role in this issue has been largely overlooked. The way it's been covered in the news, you'd think the president were handing down a royal proclamation. This was not his "final decision" as we've been told; it's actually only the starting point of his negotiations with Congress. If he's already taken the extraordinary step of very publicly breaking a campaign promise, then if Congress decides to go a couple steps farther, how much can we expect him to resist? If he's presented with a bill that contains a provision he doesn't agree with -- say, for instance, the creation of new embryos to be destroyed for research -- will he have the nerve to veto it?

Can W say no to Superman?

Before you try to answer that, imagine what the hearings will be like, with sick and disabled celebrities appearing as witnesses, their testimony leading the nightly news on every network.

Keep in mind that, the way bills are named in Congress, this one will probably be entitled something like The End To Human Suffering Act of 2001. To veto such a bill would be presented as "pro-suffering" or "pro-disease." How confident can we now be that Bush has enough resolve to absorb that kind of punishment?

Remember also the dishonesty of some of those who've campaigned against Bush up until this point. In early July, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation began running an ad featuring an eleven year-old girl named Samantha. The following is a transcript of the audio from that ad.

"Insulin keeps her alive ... but stem cell research could cure devastating diseases like juvenile diabetes, giving Samantha hope for a long and healthy life. Unfortunately, politics is preventing a breakthrough in medical science, even though the promise of stem cell research has broad support in Washington and across the country. So please, call President Bush, and ask him to support stem cell research ... for all the Samanthas waiting for a cure."

You probably noticed the omission of an important word there. Of all the different types of stem cell research being conducted, the only ones that are at all controversial are embryonic and fetal stem cell research. What this ad is promoting is embryonic research, yet the word "embryonic" appears nowhere in the ad. The inconvenient adjective is used, however, in a description of the ad on the JDRF website. The people at the JDRF clearly censored their rhetoric for public consumption, in order to deceive people into thinking there's no competing interest involved.

The JDRF and other research activist groups are giving Bush mild praise right now, but once there's a concrete proposal being debated, and Bush again appears as an impediment, he will be given no credit for having taken a step in their direction. He will again be portrayed as an opponent of "stem cell research" and as a threat to little Samantha's life.

When President Bush then has a chance to become their hero, by doing something "for all the Samanthas waiting for a cure," will he cease to see a difference between already-dead-anyway embryos and soon-to-be-dead-anyway-embryos? After all, once the parents of an embryo created for in vitro fertilization decide that they no longer want it, one could argue that a life-or-death decision has already been made.

I thought we were rid of him

That may sound like too cute a distinction to come from the plain-talking Texan. Sure, the devious mind of Bill Clinton would look for that kind of loophole, but Bush has been direct and honest with the public about taxes, missile defense, energy policy, and so many other issues. Surely, he isn't capable of such duplicity.

Well, one would have thought so at any time before August 9, when he directly contradicted a promise he'd made, then insisted he hadn't done so. During the campaign, Bush responded to a questionnaire that, "Taxpayer funds should not underwrite research that involves the destruction of live human embryos." How can he possibly believe that he is remaining consistent with this declaration? Does it depend on what your definition of "involves" is? Mindful to keep from being linked to his father's broken "read my lips" pledge, G.W. Bush risks associating himself instead with his father's successor.

Toward the end of his address, President Bush indicated that he is already anticipating further alterations to his position, when he revealed, "I will also name a president's council to monitor stem cell research, to recommend appropriate guidelines and regulations, and to consider all of the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation."

Wait a minute ... this was supposed to be the speech that set those "appropriate guidelines" once and for all. Now he's leaving himself open to future recommendations from somebody else.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research are supposed to be encouraged by the fact that Bush will appoint conservative bioethicist Dr. Leon Kass as chairman of his new council. Actually, this is far from reassuring. The USA Today reports that the president's long-awaited announcement was influenced by Dr. Kass "more than anyone else." So next to Bush himself, Kass was the one most responsible for his recent abandonment of principle.

Even if we can count on Dr. Kass to maintain his current position, he will be just one member on a panel of 12 to 15. Considering that there are fewer conservatives in the field of bioethics than there are on National Public Radio, the identities of the rest of those members is a cause for more than a little concern. Who will be involved in the selection process? One would expect that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson would have quite a lot of input. When he was governor of Wisconsin, Thompson advocated taxpayer funding for not just embryonic, but also fetal stem cell research. If President Bush is about to hand him any additional authority in regard to this issue, further concessions are all but inevitable.

The HHS Department is already home to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, created by President Clinton in 1995. Not only does the NBAC favor much broader approval of embryonic stem cell research than Bush is currently willing to accept, but it even issued a report on human cloning which approved the practice for the purpose of embryonic research. According to the NBAC, cloning is perfectly ethical, just as long as the cloned human subjects are killed.

Send in the pointyheads!

Whereas the NBAC was created to deal with a whole spectrum of bioethical questions, this new council will address only the issue of stem cell research. Does that mean it will be an organ within the NBAC, its decisions having to be checked off by a panel of Clinton appointees? Or is it meant to replace the NBAC altogether? If the latter is the case, then we can expect that, in a display of bipartisanship, many of the same members will be carried over.

The whole purpose of appointing a bioethics commission is to ease the burden of responsibility on policy makers, by allowing them to defer to the wisdom of the "experts." For this reason alone, one of the first things President Bush should have done upon taking office was to dissolve the NBAC. What's he's dissolving instead is his own ability to lead.

When Bush took his original position during the campaign, based on a decision he'd made on his own, it was principled, consistent, and easily defensible. Since he's spent months seeking the advice of others, and trying to strike a "balance," he has arrived at a position which is illogical and unprincipled, and which is so full of holes that it is incapable of withstanding future attacks. One might as well try to hold back the tide by erecting a chain-link fence.

This tragic outcome is characteristic of what Margaret Thatcher warned about when she said, "Consensus is the negation of leadership." It was with that axiom in mind that she famously told Bush's father during the prelude to the Gulf War not to "go wobbly."

Well, G.W. Bush has gone wobbly. He indicated this to us during his speech, when he said, "I strongly oppose human cloning, as do most Americans." If he thinks human cloning is wrong, it shouldn't matter to him what most Americans think. He presents his conviction as if it derives its strength from the external factor of consensus. Likewise, he explains his approval of limited embryonic research by pointing out that, "most scientists, at least today, believe that research on embryonic stem cells offers the most promise because these cells have the potential to develop in all of the tissues in the body."

There are many scientists who believe that the ideal stem cells for the treatment of diseases and disabilities would come from cloned embryos, because if a transplanted stem cell shares the chromosomes of its recipient, the chances of rejection would be reduced. What happens if "most" scientists adopt this position, and they pitch it to the public successfully enough that "most Americans" no longer oppose human cloning?

Moreover, what if the consensus among scientists concludes that the sixty stem cell lines Bush says already exist are not enough, and that, if given the resources to explore new lines created from freshly destroyed embryos, they will be able to perform miracles? And what if the president's own bioethics council agrees?

Based on this recent experience, there is no reason to believe that he will stand firm. But then, why would he, if his right-to-life allies are going to thank him for his incremental abandonments anyway?



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