IT IS INCREASINGLY CLEAR that John Kerry and the Democrats plan to make embryonic stem cell research a campaign issue. In a speech in Denver last week, Sen. Kerry attacked the Bush administration for letting “ideology and fear stand in the way” of medical progress. In a June 12 radio address, he called stem cells the “crucial next steps in humanity’s uphill climb.” He appealed to the memory and suffering of Ronald Reagan; he rattled off a long list of diseases that stem cells “have the power” to cure; he said “if we pursue the limitless potential of our science, and trust that we can use it wisely, we will save millions of lives and earn the gratitude of future generations.” In a speech late last year, Kerry declared that “nothing illustrates this administration’s anti-science attitude better than George Bush’s cynical decision to limit research on embryonic stem cells.”
The one-dimensional zeal of Kerry’s stem cell campaign is striking. He offers no serious discussion of the ethical dilemmas involved in destroying nascent human life–just assertions that the ethical issues will be “resolved.” He shows little respect for citizens who believe destroying human embryos is wrong–just demands that their tax dollars be used to support it. He says that we should “push the boundaries of medical exploration”–but says nothing about what ethical boundaries, if any, should be inviolable. For example: Should we use public funds to produce cloned embryos for research and destruction? Should we develop embryos–cloned or uncloned–to the fetal stage as a source of spare parts? Should we implant human embryos in animal wombs? Is there anything a civilized people should refuse to do–even if it might advance medicine in the future? On these ethical questions, Kerry is utterly silent. Or rather, he says, “I have full faith that our scientists will go forward with a moral compass”–but says nothing about what compass they’ll use.
President Bush’s policy on the federal funding of experiments using embryonic stem cells, announced in the summer of 2001, is both more moderate and more responsible than Kerry’s call for science without limits. The Bush policy aims to promote medical progress by publicly funding research on a limited number of already-existing embryonic stem cell lines. But it also aims to respect the dignity of early human life by not using federal funds to promote embryo destruction. And it aims to respect the pluralism of the country by not forcing those who oppose embryo research to pay for it. The Bush policy satisfies no one completely: Pro-lifers lament the fact that embryo destruction proceeds apace in the private sector; scientists lament that only some embryonic stem cell research is eligible for public funding. But as an example of statesmanship on a morally contentious issue, the Bush policy is not only defensible but wise.
By contrast, Sen. Kerry is demagogic. He repeatedly overstates the imminent promise of stem cell therapies. He asserts, for example, that “stem cells have the power to slow the loss of a grandmother’s memory.” But leading scientists say that embryonic stem cells will likely do no such thing; they are not a promising means of curing Alzheimer’s. He promises that “millions” of sick patients will be cured, even though embryonic stem cell research is still so young that there have been no clinical trials. But for Kerry, stem cells have become a political religion, with scientists as the persecuted saviors. In a nation that spends more than $28 billion per year on federally funded biomedical research, this is ridiculous.
At the same time, Kerry seems to believe that scientific progress is beyond public debate; that its “limitless potential” should never be stopped; that only scientists should be allowed to decide where science will take us. But science requires self-government–not only by experts, but by citizens. The nation must decide which areas of science most deserve funding. It must debate the risks and benefits of useful but potentially dangerous technologies. And it must debate the consequences of ethically problematic research–especially when the progress of science does not necessarily mean the progress of civilization. Embryo research advocates want to save life; no one doubts their compassionate intentions. But compassion divorced from ethical reasoning becomes unhinged.
In fact, in the stem cell debate, the self-declared “party of science” is not usually the party of reason. They appeal to the suffering of loved ones (or celebrities) to make the argument for destroying human embryos. Such suffering is real and often horrible. But suffering is not an argument, and the case for embryo research must rest on some notion of what embryos are, what standing they should be accorded, and the moral consequences of using them as means for our own benefit.
But on these hard questions, the leading advocates of federal funding for embryo research are largely silent. Sen. Kerry and his allies feel little need to make concrete moral arguments because they are on the side of “progress.” To them, all ethical boundaries (and even all ethical deliberation) are the product of “ideology” and “fear.” In Sen. Kerry’s mind, progress seems to mean conquering all personal limits. Optimism is apparently the belief that I can–or I should–live forever. As Sen. Kerry put it in his radio address, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s “can’t mean the end. . . . You won’t let it. So in our own way, we become researchers and scientists. We become advocates and friends, and we reach for a cure that cannot–that must not–be too far away.” The trouble is that our desire to conquer disease can make us justify unjustifiable things–like using nascent lives as tools to help others. And our faith in “humanity’s uphill climb” can leave us blind or indifferent to the ethical consequences of our present behavior.
Ronald Reagan–“an eternal optimist,” as Kerry described him when invoking his memory to advance the stem cell cause–had a very different faith in the future. When diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after a long and heroic life, Reagan had the dignity to say goodbye to the nation he loved. He accepted that his own best days were behind him, but he believed in the future because he believed in those who would follow. “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” he wrote. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” In other words, Reagan was an optimist, not a narcissist. And while he sympathized with the patients and families suffering with degenerative diseases, he would have found it indecent (or evil) to use the seeds of the next generation as tools for saving his own life. Progress, he knew, means not living forever, but passing down a more decent society to one’s children.
The nation is obviously divided about whether destroying human embryos in search of cures is progress, regress, or both at once. And perhaps it is not easy to see the humanity of human embryos when faced with the agonizing suffering of those we know so well and love so dearly. But only a zealot would ignore the moral hazards of pursuing a national project of embryo destruction, and only a zealot would demand that all citizens pay for research that many citizens find unconscionable. In the embryonic stem cell debate, Bush is the moderate; Kerry is the zealot.
Eric Cohen is editor of the New Atlantis and a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.