Published August 12, 2001
Only a sage could have predicted that President Bush’s first major decision would be about federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. For the first few months of his presidency, most people expected stem cells to be a one-day story–like federal funding of overseas abortion clinics–with the usual histrionics on both the cultural right and left. But this was not to be.
The issue of stem cells struck a national nerve, bringing into sharp relief deep divides about right and wrong, life and death, and the meaning and source of human dignity. It introduced, in embryonic form, what may turn out to be the new bloody crossroads of U.S. politics: where giant leaps forward in medical science meet deeply entrenched differences about what makes life sacred, and where the American gospel of progress meets the biblical admonition against human pride.
President Bush’s address to the nation last Thursday, with great honesty and sobriety, laid out these differences and the competing goods (and evils) that underlie them. He described the “unique potential” of embryonic stem cells “to save life,” but also the prospect of a “brave new world” of “spare body parts” and “designer stem cells” made through human cloning. With the humility that he has tried to make the moral mark of his presidency, he described what is likely an accurate portrait of the American middle: “Many people are finding that the more they know about stem-cell research, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions.”
Then he offered a compromise: Federal funding for research on embryonic stem-cell lines that have already been created, where, as he put it, “the life-and-death decision has already been made.”
This compromise was built on three principles: One, that human embryos are life–not to be discarded, harvested, cloned, or used simply “for our convenience”; two, that the hope of the sick and suffering for cures should be kindled, that the march of medical progress must continue, but that “even the most noble ends do not justify any means”; and that the government should not take life for research, but it should fund research where others have already taken life–since there is no turning back the clock, and since the memory of destroyed embryos may best be honored by giving hope to those who might still live in the here and now.
It was a statesmanlike speech and a statesmanlike proposal, a compromise that aimed to be at once morally serious, politically viable and practically sustainable. But whether the Bush compromise can hold is far from certain, for many reasons.
First, the destruction of embryos for research will continue apace in the private sector. Which raises the question: If research that involves the creation of embryos solely for research and destruction is immoral, shouldn’t there be a ban on all such research, not just on the federal funding of it? And if the guiding principle of the Bush compromise is to fund research on embryos that have already been destroyed, should the government fund research on future stem-cell lines, since, inevitably, private researchers will continue to make such life-and-death decisions in the months and years ahead?
Second, if this research is successful, won’t it become a regular part of modern medicine, making it hard for those who believe such research is wrong to live according to their values while remaining fully integrated in American life? Is it possible that just as a separate society of home-schoolers has grown, a separate society of “home-healers” might grow, and with it the already deep moral rift in the nation?
Third, what happens if the 60 or so existing stem-cell lines are “not enough,” as many leading scientists are already claiming? Will President Bush revisit his decision? Are the moral boundaries he has drawn strong enough–and widely accepted enough by the nation at large–to hold up against the next wave of medical promises?
For now, Bush’s decision seems to have achieved what most believed to be impossible: approval from many members of both the pro-life community and the patient-advocacy and medical research community. But this may turn out to be a Missouri Compromise–an effort to find the best possible solution, for now, with larger debates and disagreements just around the corner.
Throughout the campaign and during his first six months in office, the president vowed to bring a new civility and decency to American public life. After his legislative victories on tax cuts, energy and the patient’s bill of rights, his staff said he would turn his attention to America’s values, including initiatives like urging the media to put more good news in the newspaper and urging kids to e-mail their grandparents. Small and silly as these initiatives seem, they are part of a larger Bush project: to promote values without inciting conflict, to make America more virtuous without opening up the Pandora’s box of profound disagreement about what it is exactly that makes America virtuous. On a much more serious and sobering level, the president tried to accomplish this feat with stem cells: to preserve America’s shared values while reining in the nation’s deepest moral divides. It is, at best, an honorable enterprise, but whether it will prove lasting or significant, especially in the face of the looming challenges of the genetic revolution, is a great unknown.
After the speech, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card described Bush’s decision as “perfect for America.” Perhaps more accurately, it was a decision that perfectly reflects America’s uncertainty. A CNN/USA Today poll showed that 54% of Americans believe embryonic stem-cell research is morally wrong, but 69% believe it is medically necessary. In other words, most Americans believe it is necessary to do wrong, that it is morally right (or at least morally justifiable) to do evil. This may be the subtlety required by such life-and-death questions–the same subtlety required when good nations decide to go to war. Or it may be an untenable moral confusion–an escape from hard choices, an inability to rein in our inflamed desire for health.
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times