Embryonic Histrionics 

Bush ducks for cover on stem cell research

Bush ducks for cover on stem cell research

It’s hard to know which is more offensive: the hypocrisy of George W. Bush’s so-called compromise on stem cell research, or the unremitting sanctimony with which the White House delivered and spun the decision.

The hypocrisy, of course, is that Bush has completely reversed his religious right lapdog act on the campaign trail last year, when he asserted that federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was out of the question. Once in office and actually facing the issue, Bush found that even some ordinarily extreme social conservatives, such as Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, think the research using these basic cells, present in the earliest stages of embryos, is worth funding. No doubt the White House figured out early on that sticking to Bush’s campaign position would offend science and reason merely to appease the Catholic church, the fanatical right, and almost nobody else.

So the administration deftly executed a plain and simple renege through a protracted period of socially constructed hand-wringing, followed by a televised prime-time speech to the nation last Thursday that made this no-brainer sound like a tormented decision to declare war on China. After the speech, a White House spokesman said Bush’s reversal on stem cells is explained by the fact that he came to appreciate the issue’s complexity only recently. It’s refreshing indeed to see a politician admit that he is comfortable adopting extreme positions on issues he barely comprehends.

Bush’s announcement, according to an administration official quoted by The New York Times, “shatters the mythology that this is not a person who thinks deeply or wrestles intellectually with tough issues.” To the contrary, Bush laid out restrictions going forward that are both scientifically and ethically tenuous. By limiting federal money to the study of existing stem cell colonies (or “lines”), he is assuming that enough of these lines exist, that they are sufficiently stable, and that they vary genetically to an adequate degree. Scientists have serious reservations on all three fronts. As Mark Frankel of the American Association for the Advance of Science put it, “these restrictions may well have implications for our ability to generate certain kinds of knowledge.”

Bush’s anti-science temerity is hardly new—think global warming, arsenic, and evolution, to name a few—and it might conceivably be justifiable in this case if there were some broader moral principle at stake. But the ethics of the administration position on stem cells are laughable. Bush declares that it’s wrong to destroy an embryo for research purposes, preferring to fund only research studies using stem cell lines from embryos that have already been destroyed for research purposes. The ends do not justify the means, he is saying, but apparently they justify yesterday’s means (or the private sector’s means). In his televised speech, Bush spoke of exploring the promise of stem cell research “without crossing a fundamental moral line,” yet the line he offered is one of conspicuous nebulosity.

The whole stem cell research controversy shakes out as yet another vastly trumped-up effort to inappropriately inject religion into the properly secular enterprises of science and public policy. Although politicians and the media have grown fond of sheltering the stem cell debate under a protective coating of “bioethics,” the fact is that opposition to stem cell research is rooted in religious beliefs that arguably are irrelevant to the policy issues at stake. Abortion is a highly charged analogue—we privilege a woman’s right to reproductive privacy and self-determination over the objections of those who themselves might not choose, for religious or other reasons, to end a pregnancy.

Perhaps more to the point are in-vitro fertilization and post-conception forms of birth control—the former, of course, being the very source of embryonic stem cells. There are those who would use the power of law and government to block access to these techniques. One presumes they mean well, believing that not just life but personhood begins at conception. But this is merely what they believe as a matter of faith, not reason.

When Bush told the nation last week that he believes “human life is a sacred gift from our creator,” he was telling us something of no consequence whatsoever, given that this debate is happening in a secular democracy that shuns religion.

The embryo used for stem cell research has “potential for life,” Bush reminded us, but so of course do the eggs and sperm that may or may not come together. As we all learn by high school, conception is an interesting biological moment, but its position as a legal and political boundary is strictly a theological construction. Embryonic stem cells come from primitive non-sentient living organisms that in most cases would otherwise be discarded, but which instead can be used for potentially life-saving and life-enhancing biomedical research. Assuming all sentient parties involved are acting with free will and informed consent, we should encourage this research to go forward aggressively with generous federal funding and few if any restrictions. Those with religious objections are welcome to enact their beliefs by declining to avail themselves of the treatments that ultimately emerge from stem cell research.

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