CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush's much anticipated decision on whether the federal government would fund research on human embryos came as a surprise to many.
In a nine-minute-long nationally televised speech, the president announced, “As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem-cell lines already exist. They were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and they have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating ongoing opportunities for research. I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made.”
President Bush's decision means his administration will be the first to use federal tax dollars to fund research prohibited by a 1995 congressional ban. The law banned experiments in which embryos are “destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.”
Last summer, with encouragement from the Clinton White House, the National Institutes of Health issued guidelines that let federally funded scientists bypass the law by obtaining embryonic stem cells from private laboratories.
The Clinton-era guidelines would have allowed the first federal subsidies of research using human embryonic cells, although federal funds would not have been used to directly kill any embryos. But they never actually became law.
The reaction from pro-lifers to the decision was mixed. James Dobson, the evangelical Christian who is president of Focus on the Family, applauded the president's decision.
Catholic leaders like Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua were more guarded.
“It is with mixed feelings that I listened to the decision of President Bush regarding the use of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research,” he said.
“From a Catholic perspective, I would have preferred a total exclusion of funding for embryonic stem cell research,” he added. “At the same time, I am grateful that the President has remained faithful to his pro-life stance by banning the use of taxpayer money for research on stem cells that would require any future destruction of living human embryos.
Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, did not.
He said the “trade-off” Bush announced was “morally unacceptable,” adding, “The federal government, for the first time in history, will support research that relies on the destruction of some defenseless human beings for possible benefit to others.”
What of the limits the Bush decision puts on the research?
“Researchers who want to pursue destructive embryo research and their allies in Congress have already rejected such limits, saying that these limits will interfere with efforts to turn embryonic stem cell research into possible medical treatments,” said Bishop Fiorenza.
In the end, “The president's policy may therefore prove to be as unworkable as it is morally wrong … ultimately serving only those whose goal is unlimited embryo research.”
Helen Alvare, a professor at the Columbus School of Law, and former pro-life spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, agreed.
“Considering the hubris of the scientists in this field, and the public's lack of expertise,” she said, “I am afraid the President's action is like waving a little raw meat before lions.”
Father Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who serves as one of the informal advisers to the White House on “Catholic issues” — including stem cells — said he counseled against the compromise.
Father Sirico told the Register, “I think that the decision, while politically brilliant, and perhaps even morally tolerable, may end up moving things in the wrong direction and further erode the culture of life the president so dearly values.”
With Robert P. George and Deal Hudson Father Sirico said a month before the decision that just such a compromise would be unacceptable to them as Catholic:
“An article quoting us in [July 8's] Los Angeles Times could leave readers with the impression that we favor a ‘compromise’ on the issue of embryonic stem cell harvesting that would include authorization of federal money for research on existing cell lines. We do not.
“While it is possible, as an abstract matter, to imagine circumstances and conditions under which research on existing cell lines could be acceptable, such circumstances and conditions would have to involve, among other things, a permanent, absolute, enforceable, and unequivocal ban on the funding of embryo destruction and research involving future cell lines deriving from embryo destruction. A compromise permitting funding of research on existing cell lines would, in the current political climate, make it more difficult to maintain existing protections of embryonic human beings against destructive experimentation, stem cell harvesting, and other assaults.”
‘Leon Kass is top-class. He's a splendid human being. He's been an opponent of cloning for 20 years. You couldn't get a better informed advice than you will from him, and a truly reflective of the Judeo-Christian position.’
— Msgr. William Smith
Scientists like Daniel Callahan, director of International Programs at the Hastings Center in New York, were more willing to accept the decision.
Callahan also advised the president before the decision. He has worked closely with University of Chicago's Leon Kass, who will head a new panel to oversee stem-cell research and other biotech issues.
“As an opponent of embryonic stem-cell research,” he said. “I am pleased that the president did not authorize the creation of new cell lines from discarded embryos. I would have preferred that he not have authorized research of any kind, but I think he acted prudently in seeking a compromise. He found about the only one possible, and I support him in that.”
Another scientist, Lee Silver, was bothered that the president did not give the biotech community enough in the compromise. The professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University, who is out-spoken on biotechnology issues, is optimistic that Bush's decision will only briefly stunt federally funded research on embryos.
“The decision opens the door to federal funding of this research for the first time,” he said. “The 60 cell lines should be enough to kick-start the research, but as a consequence, as discoveries are made in the next few years, there will be a need for a serious expansion of the pool of cell lines to take the research to the next phase.”
In the end, he added, “This president or another will be faced with having to decide between allowing the research to continue with more cell lines, or stopping it in its tracks.”
Not Solomon's wisdom
Chris Currie is a diabetic whose condition could possibly be helped by stem-cell research. He said he nonetheless opposes Bush's decision.
“The freedom of researchers to create new cell lines by destroying countless more embryos using private money continues unchecked,” he said.
“President Bush may have felt he exercised the wisdom of Solomon with his compromise,” he said, “but the wise king saved the baby.”
Dominican Father Brian Shanley, a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of America, said that Bush's apparent understanding of the issues involved only makes matters worse.
“In the end, I don't think Bush has the courage of his convictions,” he said. “The principles are in place in the speech to draw the right conclusions, but he doesn't do it. For all his philosophizing, he ultimately ends up incoherent in an attempt to mollify his critics.”
Other moral theologians were less severe. Msgr. William Smith of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., said the decision was “on balance positive.”
“I know some people have hit the wall, and if you ask me it's better if we didn't do it,” he said. “But at least the government is not funding the destruction of embryos. That's an important line not to cross.”
But he added: “They've been working on stem cells from mice for years and haven't accomplished beans.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez is executive editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com) and an associate editor of National Review.
Day of Decision
CRAWFORD, Texas — On the morning of Aug. 9, the White House requested nine minutes from television networks so the president could make his first primetime address since he spoke to a joint session of Congress in February.
He was to announce his stem-cell decision from “the Western White House,” his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where for weeks, insiders had said he was carefully deliberating over the decision, meeting with various theologians, scientists, and others with insight on the issue.
Throughout the day, leaks came from the White House, where few knew what exactly the president had decided. It was clear a “compromise” position was to come, but the details were unclear.
By 9:15 that night, no one seemed completely happy. Surprised, yes, but not satisfied.
Throughout the day, activists on both sides of the debate had focused on a letter President Bush sent to the Washington-based Culture of Life Foundation on May 18.
In it, he wrote: “I oppose federal funding for stem-cell research that involves destroying living human embryos. I support innovative medical research on stem cells from adult tissue.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez