Stem-Cell Compromise Divides Right-Wingers

Like so many other things, religious absolutism just isn’t

what it used to be. Back in the old days, reigning clerics would pass down the

word on controversies in science or sexuality, and anybody who disagreed too

boldly would be burned at the stake. Modernity has made life more complicated,

even for the simple-minded-as George W. Bush discovered during his recent

inquest into the ethics of embryonic stem-cell research.

Few events in public life are as funny as this President

trying to sound profound. His televised ruminations announcing his stem-cell

decision meandered ineluctably from his “deeply held beliefs” and “respect for

life” to his unstated but unshakable worship of political convenience.

What else could be expected from a statesman who had

casually announced his total opposition to such research last year, before

bothering to learn anything about the matter? Suddenly it was obvious that he

took his original position solely to placate fundamentalist constituencies-and

that now this posturing would no longer be so easy. Mr. Bush may not know much

about biology, but Karl Rove has informed him that the great majority of

Americans-including more than 60 percent of Catholic voters-favor a liberal

approach to this issue.

If the President’s

performance was amusingly transparent, the reactions to his decision were

likewise revealing. Prominent right-wing clerics were

evenly divided between cheerleading and condemnation, which suggests that they

are no better prepared to dictate scientific ethics than Dubya.

In one corner are the

divines who complain that Mr. Bush has betrayed their trust by permitting

federally funded research on embryonic stem-cell colonies or “lines.” These are

many of the same people who thought they were colluding with him to mislead the

public during the Presidential campaign, when he presented himself as a

moderate conservative rather than a theocratic extremist.

Recall how he winked and nodded at the likes of Jerry

Falwell and Ralph Reed, and how they winked and nodded back at him and to each

other. Implied by each little gesture was the message that the religious right

would achieve unprecedented power when this born-again Bush reached the White

House. If they now feel deceived, who can say they don’t deserve it?

In another corner are

the worthies who praise Mr. Bush’s wisdom, even though his Solomonic compromise

will enable scientific activities they supposedly abhor. These pragmatic,

politically reliable preachers predictably cheer a Republican President when he

does precisely what they condemned his Democratic predecessor for doing. To

them, “abortion” is essentially a direct-mail category and “murder” is merely a

slogan.

Yet if disarray among the self-anointed encourages cynical

speculation about their motives, it is also a sign of the declining appeal of

absolutism. For decades, intellectual and emotional authority has accrued to

the so-called pro-lifers despite their political frustration. They looked pure

while their opponents seemed selfish.

Suddenly, in the debate over stem cells, the pro-lifers have

run aground on their own rhetoric. They are finding it hard to explain why the

“pro-life” position values a few frozen embryonic cells over a potential cure

for Parkinson’s disease or paraplegia, let alone to persuade anyone that this

preference makes sense.

That’s why Mr. Bush flinched from adopting the absurd position

he had once endorsed so unconditionally. He knew he could get away with a

flip-flop-not only because so many of his supporters on the religious right are

morally and politically pliable, but because his conservative advisers had so

much trouble sustaining the absolutist argument themselves.

Both the Los Angeles

Times and The Washington Post have reported that an outline of

the eventual Bush compromise was floated several weeks ago by those same White

House advisers, including Princeton professor Robert

George. When their tentative acceptance of the compromise was first mentioned

in the press, the advisers hastily withdrew any public support. By then,

however, the breach of orthodoxy had widened too far to be completely closed.

Mr. Bush clearly followed their counsel even after they had disowned it.

They still feel obliged to deny an intuitive perception

frankly admitted by more thoughtful religious conservatives: There is an

important difference between removing stem cells from a frozen embryo and

performing a late-term abortion on a healthy mother and fetus.

This distinction has

been acknowledged implicitly by church and anti-abortion leaders, who have

mounted no real effort to shut down the clinics performing in-vitro

fertilization. They may regard that procedure as disrespectful of human life

and possibly sinful, but there has been no mass movement against in-vitro

fertilization or the research its byproducts have made possible, and there

never will be-because even the most extreme ideologues cannot convincingly

equate them with murder.

Nor, in the end, could Mr. Bush. We should be thankful that,

for once, his opportunism has provided an occasion for reason to prevail, at

least for now. It won’t happen often, and he’s already having second thoughts.