“Stem Cells and the President”

“Stem Cells and the President” December 27, 2007

A good read — and, it seems to me we can put aside, for now, what we think of President Bush’s policies in general — from Jay Lefkowitz:

. . . We do not know enough yet to say whether, or to what degree, Bush’s refusal to allow federal funding to create new embryonic stem-cell lines played a role in compelling scientists to find a different approach to the issue. We do know that, in the aftermath of last November’s announcement, several leading scientists have suddenly testified in public to having harbored the very same moral doubts that led Bush to his 2001 decision. James Thomson, the foremost stem-cell researcher in the United States, put it plainly: “If human embryonic stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”

This was not, to put it mildly, a view openly expressed by the scientific community in the years between Bush’s decision and the discovery of the new method. But remarks like Thomson’s, and the fact that a scientific advance unthinkable in 2001 has rendered one of the ugliest controversies of the decade all but moot, suggest that it is time to revisit Bush’s decision to see what lessons can be drawn from it. . . .

Now that the debate seems to be over, what can we say about Bush’s policy and the long months it took for him to devise it? I think it is fair to look upon it as a model of how to deal with the complicated scientific and ethical dilemmas that will continue to confront political leaders in the age of biotechnology. Bush refused to accept the notion that we must choose between medical research and the principle of the dignity of life at every stage. He sought both to advance biomedical science and at the same time to respect the sanctity of human life. In the end he came to a moderate, balanced decision that drew a prudent and principled line. The decision was both informed and reasoned, based on lengthy study and consultation with people of widely divergent viewpoints. It was consciously not guided by public-opinion polls.

As I write these last words, I am aware that they may sound like political spin. That is far from the case. There were many other contentious issues on which I advised the President—affirmative action, gay marriage, contraception, offshore oil and gas exploration, international trade, patent protection, even veterans’ benefits. In each of these, political considerations and calculations played at least some role in the development of policy, as they always have and always will. What made our deliberations on the stem-cell issue unique was, precisely, the absence of that element. Bush knew that whatever his decision, it was bound to alienate millions of Americans. Their ranks would include both political supporters and many who, if the decision went another way, might be drawn to reconsider their aversion to him. Our discussions were focused throughout on reaching a coherent and consistent position where the President could stand with honor for as long as the facts on the ground remained as they were. We did not dwell at all on how that position would play politically.

In the coming decades, scientific advances will compel Presidents and politicians to confront vexing choices on subjects that were once solely the province of dystopian science fiction: human cloning, fetal farming, human-animal hybrid embryos, and situations as yet unimagined and unimaginable. If we are to benefit from the great promise of the age of biotechnology while preventing grave ethical abuses, we can only hope that future Presidents will be guided by the same seriousness with which George W. Bush pursued the question of stem-cell research, as well as by his stout refusal to be seduced by the siren song of political expediency.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment