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His Stem-Cell Moderation Hurts Bush

August 20, 2004|Ramesh Ponnuru

On Aug. 9, 2001, President Bush announced he would fund research only on those stem-cell lines taken from human embryos before that date. Bush's critics claimed he had sold out to the religious extremists in his party. But in a curious way, it's the moderation of his policy that has exposed him to the strongest intellectual attacks.

Critics have said his funding policy is too restrictive. But they ignore what Bush did not do: He did not outright prohibit the research, which would seem to be the obvious thing to do if he really believed that human embryos are human beings and that destroying them, by taking their stem cells, is a kind of killing. He did not regulate fertility clinics to make sure that they too refrained from destroying embryos. He did not even cut off funding altogether.

These omissions opened the door to Bush's opponents. His policies have been called inconsistent or even hypocritical. Bush's failure to take a tougher position on destroying embryos allegedly shows that his policy is not morally serious, but rather a gesture to his base -- and one that comes at the expense of all the sick people who could some day benefit from more research.

It's been hard even for Bush's allies to articulate a defense of the policy. What, after all, is the difference between taking stem cells from a human embryo on Aug. 8, 2001, and performing the same act on Aug. 10, 2001? Yet only the first set of stem cells is eligible for federal funding under Bush's policy.

The demand for perfect consistency should not, however, exclude the possibility of political prudence. A pro-life president can reasonably decide for the time being to largely leave alone well-entrenched evils, such as common fertility clinic practices, while combating new evils to which the country is not yet accustomed -- especially if the predictable consequence of tying the issues together would be defeat on both. It would be a curious sort of principle of political morality that required people who held it to act in self-defeating ways.

Bush's policy is also defensible as a way of avoiding complicity with evils that cannot be prohibited. By limiting the research subsidies to stem cells taken before the subsidies were announced, he does not reward or induce more embryo destruction. At the same time, he declines to make taxpayers who strongly object to the embryo-killing research pay for it.

Bush's task is a difficult one. He has had to engage in a debate about the early embryo. In contrast, on abortion, Supreme Court decisions spared politicians from having to do much more than posture. Discussion of embryo research forces us all to go back to first principles: What is the early-stage human embryo? What are its claims on us?

Supporters of the research say the embryo is, uniquely, the potential source of medical miracles, though it itself is morally insignificant. It has no human characteristics, no eyes or ears or limbs. The other side says that, to the contrary, the embryo has the characteristics of human beings at that stage of development.

A person could both support legal abortion and oppose embryo-destroying research, on the theory that the interests of the pregnant woman in the first case makes a decisive difference.

But the court's abortion rulings have conditioned our thinking about the embryo debate. It made the contention that early-stage embryos are not human beings much more plausible to many people. It made many people think that it is somehow untoward for politicians to talk about the sanctity of early human life. And they forced practical pro-lifers into the sort of inconsistencies we are now seeing. It is a little odd for pro-lifers to be fighting to protect 1-day-old human embryos when it is possible, legally, to kill 8-month old human fetuses. But pro-lifers are not responsible for that fact.

In this situation, a pro-life president has a delicate task of persuasion and incremental change -- of nudging the country toward greater respect for the principle that early human lives deserve legal protection.

Bush has not always done a perfect job of this: His handlers seem to have spent much of the last year wishing the stem-cell issue would just go away without their having to engage it. He has, perhaps, not looked hard enough for additional ways to reach morally sound compromises. But his critics should not pretend his policy is more extreme than it is, or worse, use his moderation to damn him.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review.

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