President Bush’s embryonic stem cell policy began with lies and has now ended with one.
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Bush reserved his first veto as president for one of the only valuable things this do-almost-nothing Congress has managed to actually get done.
With a flourish of a veto pen that has remained dormant no matter how dopey Congress has been, the Senate bill allowing public funding of embryonic stem cell research has been consigned to the legislative trash can.
An administration that has shown itself over and over again to have trouble telling the truth is now telling Americans in wheelchairs, those with damaged hearts, babies who are diabetic and those left immobile by Parkinsonism not to worry. The president, whose grasp of science left him unable to identify creationism as a fundamentally religious idea, and his trusty sidekick Karl Rove, rarely seen in a white lab coat but who knows something about rats, having been in Washington for some time now, claim to know best which medical research is most likely to benefit diseased Americans in the future.
When Bush uttered his first confused words on the subject of embryonic stem cell research five years ago in August 2001, he said that he was opposed to embryonic stem cell research since it involved the destruction of human life.
He noted that there were embryos, and many of them, already in existence in infertility clinics and left unwanted by those who created them. But he held it was wrong to use those in research. Instead, he told us, he had found a way out of the dilemma of how to do embryonic stem cell research without destroying any embryos.
What had Bush figured out that no one in the scientific community could see then and remains unable to see now?
There were, he said, 60 stem cell lines that had been made from embryos which held “great promise that could lead to breakthrough therapies and cures.” If he gave federal money to support research on those lines and funded research on adult stem cells, such as bone marrow, fetal blood cells taken from umbilical cords and other adult stem cells found in skin, muscle and the intestine, then all would be well.
Wrong science, flawed ethics
The president’s supporters, a much larger set then than now, blessed his insight and his wisdom in producing a marvelous "compromise" and pronounced the quandary over stem cell research resolved.
Except, as even the president must have known and some of his most vocal supporters knew, the president was talking through his hat.
There were never 60 embryonic stem cell lines available for research. Not even close. Even if there had been, that number would never have been enough to support serious research on diseases and disorders for very long, as experts in embryonic stem cell research found out in less than a year.
Not only was Bush’s science wrong, the ethics behind his so-called compromise were deeply flawed, too.
If the president deemed it moral to use cell lines made from human embryos that had already been destroyed, then why would he argue that other embryos headed inevitably for destruction couldn’t be the source of new stem cell lines?
In fact, if the president was so concerned about the fate of embryos, why did he not speak out to close infertility programs around the country that destroy embryos? Why did he not try to shut down privately funded embryonic stem cell research? And, if the president was so worried about destructive embryo research, why did he not propose a ban on bringing across our borders any cure or therapy that might be discovered overseas if it was based on embryonic stem cell research?
If adult stem cell research were really an alternative to embryonic, then why have nearly all but the tiniest handful of the experts who work on stem cells maintained that this is false? And why has the president failed to secure the agreement of a single medical or scientific society of any standing with his position that a combination of funding a small number of existing stem cell lines made from human embryos and a push behind adult stem cell research is the best strategy to mend damaged brains and heal broken spinal cords?
Evidence that the president’s views rest firmly on a foundation of deception layered with a rich mix of confusion and inconsistency is to be found in the enthusiasm with which Britain, China, India, Israel, Australia, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Singapore, Korea, South Africa, France and many other nations have launched embryonic stem cell research programs.
The only people who continue to put faith in the policy of promoting government funding for only adult stem cell research that the president is still babbling on about are the president, his close advisors, some conservative groups motivated by deeply-held religious views concerning embryos and a few neoconservative polemicists who seem desperate to find an issue that might bring them redemption after doing such a fine job contributing to the design of American foreign policy under Bush.
Sending a clear message
With his veto of the bill creating federal funding and regulation over embryonic stem cell research, the president continues to ask us and, more notably, those who are sick and ailing amongst us, to swallow a false, morally incoherent policy.
Not too long after the president’s first speech on the subject, the sick and ailing recognized the president was not wise, but rather wacky, and decided to do something about it. With the help of high-profile efforts involving Nancy Reagan, Christopher Reeve, Mary Tyler Moore, Michael J. Fox and a less visible but incredibly committed and hugely influential phalanx of disease advocacy organizations a sound policy about embryonic stem cell research was articulated.
The policy to permit closely monitored federal funding swung hearts and minds in both houses of Congress. Governors and state legislators and, yes, even those in the media began to understand that the only sensible strategy in the battle against disease, infirmity, disability and death is to put the chips of public funding behind all forms of stem cell research — embryonic and adult.
With his veto the president has now reaffirmed a policy that never made any sense, garnered no scientific support to speak of, was abandoned by both houses of Congress and the leaders of his own party and, most importantly, got no traction with those most in need of the benefits of the research — patients and their families.
The president has now told doctors, researchers and patients to drop dead. Science policy in the Bush administration is best made in the White House, not by scientists and not by Congress.
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