It could have been worse. A lot worse.
Faced with what most observers thought was a decision for or against funding research that destroys human embryos, President Bush chose a third option: To fund research on human embryos that have already been destroyed, but whose cell lines are being kept available in labs.
That means that federal funds won't go to the destruction of human embryos. That's no small thing in today's climate. At the same time, it would have been better to withhold money for any destructive research, whether the victims are dead or alive.
Rapid developments in biotechnology are coming at us like a flood. Stem cells from embryos are just one of the many “Brave New World” practices scientists are overwhelming us with.
These practices, paradoxically, show two things: First, that science is absolutely certain that life begins at conception (otherwise, there would be no interest in these early lives) and second, that many scientists care very little about the ethics of this work and are not likely to give their attitude a second thought.
In the face of such a flood, it would have been extremely difficult for the president to simply say “No more research on human life.” It may even have taken heroism. But America needs no less than a hero.
Instead, President Bush's decision puts him — and his country — in a precarious moral situation.
Embryos are still being killed for research, some in the very labs that will be providing the 60 cell lines Bush's decision makes available. The new policy will encourage the killing of embryos, say scientists. And for what? So far, medical remedies using embryonic cells have only harmed, not helped, patients.
Once that moral situation is spelled out, though, another question arises. Should pro-lifers abandon their support for Bush?
We don't thinks so.
Bush's decision has to be judged on two levels: First, its moral implications and second, its political intent.
It would be unfair to suspect Bush of making the choice he made out of callous disregard for the unborn or, for that matter, wanting to thwart the building of a culture of life.
In addition to the moral logic at work here, there is a political logic. It is the logic of power, of how to manage the opposition, the choices politicians must make sometimes to give appearances of compromise to gain the intermediate end of neutralizing the opposition, so as to achieve the ultimate goal.
Pope John Paul II himself has said that a pro-life politician in a regime of bad laws can do his best to lessen the evil.
Bush is pro-life. He took his speech as an opportunity to tell Americans that life is sacred and begins at conception. Perhaps he saw his political choice this way:
First, he could have given a green light to the research. That would have been a disaster for the embryos involved and the rest of the population.
Second, he could have banned federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. If he had done so, he would have incurred the wrath of the scientific — and pro-abortion — establishments. A hostile and radically pro-abortion Senate would have reacted predictably by going around him to fund stem-cell research. A hostile judiciary would have helped.
Third, he could do what he did: Limit embryonic stem-cell research to existing cell lines. By placing a limit on federally funded embryo research, the decision might well force more experimentation on adult stem cells. Or then again, the research may find that stem cells are fool's gold anyway, with nothing to offer.
At any rate, Bush may well have decided that you can't stop a flood by executive order. Perhaps he thought it would be better to dam it and control it, instead. We pray that he's right.
Pro-lifers have not been slow to point out the moral deficiencies of Bush's policy. We should be just as quick to back up the principle he first articulated in the Register more than a year ago:
Life begins at conception, and it must be protected.