Bush Has Few Options on Stem-Cell Research

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.

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