Published March 9, 2009
Almost eight years ago, on the evening of Aug. 9, 2001, a new president addressed the nation about the complex challenge he confronted in deciding whether and how the federal government should support embryonic-stem-cell research. Rather than just announce the decision he had reached, George W. Bush took his national television audience through the process he had followed over the preceding months as he wrestled with that “complex and difficult issue.”
“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,” Bush said. The promise of the research could be great indeed, and some of the nation's top scientists had told him it might someday lead to treatments for the sick and suffering. Yet there was no getting around the fact that human embryos were human beings in the earliest stages of development, and the research would take their lives. “At its core,” Bush told the country, “this issue forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science. It lies at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages.”
Listening that night, one could tell that Bush sought a way to champion science and ethics together, rather than force an impossible choice between them. And the policy he proposed carved out such common ground.
The federal government had never before provided funding to research that relied on the destruction of embryos, but some human embryos had been destroyed using private funds. The lines of cells derived from those embryos already existed, and the “life or death” decision, as Bush put it, had already been made and could not be undone. He decided to permit federal support for projects using those existing lines, but not for work that relied on the destruction of embryos in the future. “This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem-cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos,” he said.
At first, his policy was welcomed by research advocates because it provided federal funds for the first time, but opposition soon emerged and grew. Those who did not share the president's concern about the morality of destroying human embryos for research argued that the science might advance more quickly if the ethical boundaries he established were brought down. Their complaints were soon amplified by politicians, especially Democrats who saw a potentially powerful wedge issue in stem cells. Rather than address the moral concerns at the heart of the debate, they argued that the Bush policy was “anti-science,” and worked to obscure its moral foundation and its practical achievements. Even as the policy supported thousands of experiments with more than $200 million in funding, and as American researchers remained the undisputed leaders in the field, Bush's opponents sought to paint the policy as obscurantist and useless.
Soon the stem-cell debate overflowed with reckless hyperbole: claims that 100 million Americans were dying of terrible degenerative illnesses and only embryonic-stem-cell research could save them; that the funded cells were useless; that the policy was causing American scientists to fall behind their foreign counterparts; that Bush had banned embryonic-stem-cell research entirely, and on and on. It was mostly politicians, not scientists, who uttered such patent falsehoods, and they may well have believed their statements were true. But the effect of it all was to distort the debate, steering it clear of discussions about the humanity of the embryos involved and the profound ethical dilemma President Bush had described. By the time Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards said in 2004 that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk,” it was clear the debate had come to have little to do with the actual science of stem cells.
That actual science, meanwhile, has moved dramatically, and in a direction that actually tends to justify Bush's hope that science and ethics would not have to conflict. There has been little progress toward therapeutic applications (if anything, the once common “personal repair kit” scenario seems far less plausible now), but it increasingly looks like whatever potential there is in embryonic stem cells can be harnessed without the destruction of embryos. Over the last three years in particular, a technique that transforms normal adult cells (like skin cells) into what appears to be the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells has been sweeping the field, holding out the promise of not only a way around the ethical dilemmas but a source of genetically matched cells almost without end. Cells left over from fertility treatment have thus grown far less compelling on scientific grounds than they were when Bush made his decision, but no less problematic on moral grounds. Today, the case for funding them is weaker than ever.
Unfortunately, the political debate has yet to recover the kind of balanced understanding of the moral quandary that President Bush offered the country eight years ago, much less catch up with the scientific developments that shift the moral balance even further away from embryo-destructive research. President Obama, confronted with the same question as Bush was, has opted to sharpen the differences between science and ethics rather than seek common ground, and has for the first time put federal dollars toward funding the destruction of human embryos for research.
As he did so, Obama also chose to repeat the familiar cliché that the Bush policy was a betrayal of science. In his administration, he argued, “we make scientific decisions based on facts and not ideology.” The facts of the Bush administration's funding of the research, its support for science funding more generally, and the emergence of alternatives to embryo destruction seem not to count. And the fact that every human embryo is a living human being seemed unworthy of mention.
Science policy is not a science: It must seek to use science to the benefit of the larger society, and also to restrain science in those rare instances when it threatens that society's ideals. In hindsight, it seems increasingly clear that President Bush's stem-cell-funding policy will stand as a model of how to strike a balance between these concerns. President Obama's overturning of the Bush approach offers an unfortunate example of how fragile that balance often is.
— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, senior editor of The New Atlantis, and author of Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.