Subduing the Stem-Cell Debate

Decisions on issues as divisive as stem-cell research are a tough call politically because any choice is going to make some people mad. The trick is to make a decision that doesn't send either side into howls of outrage. That's precisely what President Bush pulled off.

Bush appeared very mindful of not appearing to break the campaign pledge he repeated as recently as May of this year in a letter to the Culture of Life Foundation: "I oppose federal funding for stem-cell research that involves destroying living human embryos." He knew what happened to his father after he broke his "no new taxes" pledge. Conservative leaders accused the elder Bush of—as one put it—breaking his word on "a key defining issue, without what might be viewed as a significant explanation."

Stem-cell research was not "a key defining issue" of George W. Bush's presidential campaign. Still, he was taking no chances. After conspicuously thoughtful consideration, he announced his decision in a prime-time television address. In other words, he gave the public "a significant explanation."

In a distinction that can only be described as Clintonesque, Bush endorsed federal funding for research on 60 existing stem-cell lines that were "created from embryos that have already been destroyed," but stopped short of "crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos."

The decision didn't spark much enthusiasm or much outrage. Instead, the President got the same response from both sides: We're disappointed, but we can live with the decision.

Bush received that reaction from stem-cell research advocates, such as actress Mary Tyler Moore, who's active in the fight against juvenile diabetes. She remarked, "We always wish it were more, but compared to what we were all fearing might happen, this is good."

Bush also got a subdued response from leaders of the Religious Right, including James Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family: "We were pleased by the fact that, while he may not have said it directly, he implied that life begins at conception. That's a good thing."

The President's decision also drew grudging acceptance from scientists such as John Gearhart, a stem-cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University Schol of Medicine, who said, "I am certainly pleased that he's endorsed this work, that he's willing to approve of federal funding in this area, but I am discouraged, of course, by the limitations that he's placed on it."

And Bush got similar feedback from lawmakers who favor a ban on all stem-cell research. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., for example, said: "I think, overall, he handled it quite well. I do have some qualms with what he put forward." The President got pretty much the same mixed reaction from lawmakers who oppose restrictions. Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md., whose district includes the National Institutes of Health, said, "I applaud him for opening up the concept of research on embryonic stem cells, but I would submit that we need to move further."

The President announced his decision in a statement aimed at placating religious conservatives: "I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on existing stem-cell lines where the life-and-death decision has already been made."

That distinction makes no moral sense, critics contend. "At its worst," Ken Connor, the president of the Family Research Council, said, "that represents the ethos of Dr. [Josef] Mengele, who experimented on doomed twins at Auschwitz on the basis that they were going to die anyway." From that perspective, the President is supporting research on ill-gotten booty. If the studies pay off, they will certainly be used to justify further human embryo research.

Once your definition of "life" extends to human embryos, as Bush's clearly does, any research that justifies their destruction becomes morally tainted. The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the treatment of "some human lives as nothing more than objects to be manipulated and destroyed for research purposes."

The President's decision makes no scientific sense either, other critics contend. "We need to know if those cells that the President has identified are robust and useful," complained Lawrence Soler, who led a coalition of patient-advocacy groups. David Baltimore, the president of the California Institute of Technology, said, "What [Bush] has done is exactly what I was worried about, which is to assume that the existing lines have all the power that we need."

Will the existing stem-cell lines provide enough genetic diversity? What if the cells mutate or die? What about the need to replicate research findings, a basic requirement of the scientific method?

As for the council the President set up to monitor stem-cell research, Gearhart of Johns Hopkins complained, "He has named to head this council a person [Leon Kass of the University of Chicago] who has gone on record, again and again, as being opposed to this research."

Nevertheless, a decision on an intensely divisive issue that fails to provoke much outrage on either side does makes political sense. Bush has succeeded in placating the Religious Right while at the same time convincing the broader public that he is not subservient to that constituency.

The White House insists that politics had nothing to do with the President's decision. But it has to be called an impressive political maneuver.