Article July 16, 2001/Vol 6,
By Fred Barnes
The political distress and moral agony now burdening President Bush on the issue of stem cell research could have been avoided. All Bush had to do was take the advice of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the first days of his administration. The bishops urged him to implement immediately his campaign promise to bar federal funding for stem cell research that destroys human embryos. As an alternative, Bush could have proposed to jack up funding for research on adult stem cells, the use of which harms no one and raises no moral or ethical questions. Yes, redeeming his promise would have sparked yipes of outrage from the abortion lobby, disease groups, scientists, and assorted liberals. But it would have been a one-day story, not a firestorm but a flicker.
But Bush temporized, then temporized some more. This has allowed a massive effort to spring up in favor of federal sponsorship of research using human embryos-an effort heavily promoted by the national media. Newsweek delivered a tendentious cover story. Pieces on the front page, editorial page, and op-ed page of the New York Times argued for such research. The handful of Republican pro-lifers who advocate use of embryos got lavish press attention. So did scientists who echo that view. The pro-ban view got short shrift. The media largely ignored reports of astonishing success in research using adult stem cells. And Bush was left in a pickle: He must either flip-flop on a moral issue and anger his conservative supporters or reach a decision consistent with his campaign promise and get whacked in the press.
Misinformation disseminated by the media has made it harder for Bush to stick by his campaign pledge. Surplus embryos from fertility clinics will only be "discarded," the media say, so why not exploit them for medical research on Parkinson's and other diseases? The truth is many leftover embryos have been adopted and implanted in women who couldn't otherwise conceive. In fact, 18 House members last week wrote Bush, asking him to meet with three children, two of them twins, who "used to be frozen embryos residing at in vitro fertilization clinics."
Also, the media have touted dubious polls that show widespread public support for federal backing for embryonic stem cell research (69 percent in the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey). Sorry, but it depends on how you ask the question. A poll conducted for the Catholic bishops informed respondents the embryos would be destroyed in the process. Seventy percent said they opposed using tax money to finance this research.
Then there's the supposed split in Republican and pro-life ranks. It's not much of a split. The vast majority of GOP pro-lifers support the federal funding ban. President Clinton found a clever way around the law, insisting the government was only backing the research on the stem cells, not the process that culled them and killed the embryos. This was sophistry. So is the reasoning of Republican pro-lifers who back stem cell research using embryos. Former GOP senator Connie Mack told host Tony Snow on Fox News Sunday on June 24 that he believes life begins at conception. But it's "a different set of circumstances" if life is created through in vitro fertilization. "There is no way for the blastocyst to then grow into human life," Mack said. (The blastocyst is an embryo four or five days old.) "It just cannot be done. And so, again, instead of just discarding that, to use the stem cells from that blastocyst seems to me the right thing to do." But of course an embryo created outside a mother's womb can grow into human life, and often does, once implanted in the womb.
Republican senator Orrin Hatch made the same argument in a widely publicized letter to Bush last month, and went further. He endorsed the Clinton contortion of the law. Later, appearing on Hardball, he told host Chris Matthews it is appropriate to use one type of cell (pluripotent) but not another (totipotent) because it could grow into a "completely new embryo." Hatch missed the point. Taking the first type of cell from a human embryo still causes the death of the embryo. Hatch also declared: "Life begins in the mother's womb, not in a refrigerator." This is a weird idea for a professed pro-lifer. Noted Wesley Smith in National Review Online: "Wherever it happens, fertilization certainly produces a new member of the human species." The Dickey amendment, adopted annually since 1996, buttressed that view, blocking federal funding for research that involves killing embryos.
If Bush ever thought most pro-lifers would follow Mack and Hatch, he knows better now. The drive to force Bush to reverse his position has generated a backlash. A delegation of pro-life Republican members of Congress has lobbied Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser. Rove mainly listened, but did say Bush would be criticized whatever he decides. Three of the four GOP House leaders-Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and J.C. Watts-issued a statement calling on Bush to "uphold current law and prohibit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. . . . It is not pro-life to rely on an industry of death, even if the intention is to find cures for diseases." When Bush meets Pope John Paul II in Rome on July 23, he's likely to hear something similar.
New studies raising doubts about embryonic stem cells and finding promise in the use of adult cells may have come too late. Bush appears to be wavering. Capitol Hill aides who talk to pro-lifers on Bush's staff are discouraged. On May 18, Bush wrote the Culture of Life Foundation that he opposes funding for stem cell research "that involves destroying living human embryos." But on June 28, press secretary Ari Fleischer was equivocal. Bush, he said, "is well aware of the powerful research that can come from stem cells. He is also cognizant of the fact that life should not be destroyed to save or make another life." On tough moral issues, of course, there's always a good model to emulate: President Reagan. He found that when he took a consistent position on moral issues-even an unpopular position-folks may have disagreed but they respected him. Respect is something Bush could use a bit of right now.
By Fred Barnes