After the Group of 8 summit
meeting in Genoa, President Bush met with the Pope, who asked him not to permit
embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR). It might have been more timely for the
Pope to ask the Italian police not to shoot demonstrating anarchists, but Italy
is a modern secular nation and believes in maintaining the wall of separation
between church and state.
Embryos may die early deaths, but the political problems
they cause can march on for months and years. What will the President do? For
those with memories, the suspense is heightened by the conduct of his father.
President Bush the Elder spent his four years in office letting one
conservative position after another slip away. Amazingly, the only one he chose
to keep was opposition to abortion. Not that Catholic voters, who supposedly
care about such things, rewarded him for it in 1992. If George W. Bush is
thinking of banning ESCR purely for the political payoff, he had better recall
Stalin’s question and ask how many precincts has the Pope.
Over the past eight years, the politics of abortion has been
a war of maneuver, each side seeking to force the other to display the
consequences of its logic. During the Clinton years, pro-life forces took up
the issue of partial-birth abortion, a particularly ghoulish technique in which
almost all of the child is allowed to emerge from the womb, when it has its
brain suctioned from its skull. Heads, you lose; tails, you lose, too. As
Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania made the closing argument to
ban the practice in 1996, the Senate chamber was startled to hear a baby’s cry.
It was only the wail of an infant belonging to a family of tourists outside the
visitors’ gallery, but it seemed to pro-lifers like divine timing.
With the debate over ESCR, the empire strikes back. On one
side, the public is given to understand, are the opponents of abortion,
certainly fanatical and probably religious, keening over lumps of cells. On the
other is the research arm of the medical profession, asking only to be allowed
to discover cures for Parkinson’s disease.
Not for the first time in the abortion debate, one is
impressed by the importance of who you know. Everyone knows women who have been
pregnant-mothers, wives, lovers. No one has ever met a fetus. Similarly,
everyone knows, or knows of, a sufferer of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or God’s
other little jokes we call diseases. They are our dear friends, our racked and
tortured relatives. The embryos to be used for research-helpfully depicted on a
recent cover of Newsweek in all their
pink and swollen glory-look like tumors, pollen or something that grew on the
President Bush seems to have several options. He could ban
federal funding for ESCR, but increase it for research on stem cells taken from
adults (this has the appearance of a compromise, though the medicos who support
ESCR say these cells are less useful for their purposes). Republican Senator
Bill Frist of Tennessee, the only doctor in the Senate, offered a different
compromise, a list of 10 principles. These conceal two poisoned bouquets, one
for each side. Mr. Frist would allow research to continue on embryos that are
discarded in the course of in-vitro fertilization. This is a poisoned bouquet
for pro-lifers, since it asks them to ratify a process that they deplore. But
Mr. Frist also wants to ban producing embryos, by cloning or any other means,
specifically for research work. The lab guys will have to work with the embryos
that are already lying around the shop; they won’t be able to plant new crops
of them to harvest industrially. Should Mr. Bush swallow an existing evil to
ban a new and growing one?
For grow it will. The scientific supporters of ESCR, and
their political allies, such as Republican Senator Arlen Specter of
Pennsylvania (he and Mr. Santorum must have interesting conversations), want research
untrammeled by any restrictions. If that involves what pro-life author Wesley
J. Smith calls “strip-mining human life,” so be it. They strip-mine mountains
in Pennsylvania; they can strip-mine embryos. Mr. Santorum must be out of touch
with the ecological mindset of the Keystone State.
And why shouldn’t embryos be run through a blender, if they
are only bunches of cells? Here we come to the logic of the two positions,
which is really two views of the same logic. If the pre-born human being is a
bunch of cells, then it can be exploited or disposed of, from the stage
depicted on the Newsweek cover to
nine months minus a head. But if conception begins a human story-if all the
possibilities are there, from the first kiss to the last groan-then no one has
a right to summarily end it.
What judgment one makes of these unknowable human byproducts
is, on the face of it, not a religious judgment but a question of deduction,
and imagination. One man looks at fetuses or embryos and sees nothing
recognizable. Another looks at them and sees what he once was. One man sees
life as a deck of cards, which time riffles through until they are all played.
Another feels a link between the disparate parts; he knows that what he forgot,
and what he never knew, is also involved in what he knows.
All this is no help to a President faced with a tricky
little intersection beyond the margins of Karl Rove’s road map for the first
100 days. But Presidencies consist of little but such intersections. It’s too
late in the day to be taking polls. All they would show is that there is
nothing to be gained, whatever he does. Mr. Specter won’t love President Bush
even if he supports ESCR; Catholic voters, lazy and indifferent, won’t support
him if he agrees with the Pope. The only standard that can possibly guide Mr.
Bush is to do the right thing. We will see if he knows what that is.