Split Decision

What Bush's compromise on stem cells means for medical progress.


Last night, President George Bush confounded the pro-death opponents of embryonic stem cell research by allowing federal support for efforts using the 60 existing embryonic stem lines. More important, Bush did not advocate outlawing private research and the private creation of new stem cell lines. Despite the fact that Bush technically kept his campaign promise not to support the destruction of embryos, this is not likely to mollify pro-life activists. As Joseph Howard, former director of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission and a Roman Catholic priest told a Denver radio station, "We're very disappointed. He betrayed the American people who put him into office."

Opponents of stem cell research realize all too well that if treatments using stem cells begin to fulfill their promise to cure degenerative diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's, and spinal cord injuries, then the pressure to create and use more stem cell lines will be irresistible. Furthermore, if basic stem cell research looks promising, it will inevitably lead to reopening the question of therapeutic cloning to create stem cells that are perfectly matched to a patient's immune system.

Although he came to an overly cautious but decent decision, President Bush's ethical reasoning is problematic on his own terms. That's because he appeared to maintain that embryos are people. If they are in fact people, then using them or stem cells derived from them for research purposes is immoral. Fortunately, as research progresses and the public begins to understand the biological details, they will likely conclude that embryos are not people.

The most puzzling and worrisome aspect of the president's decision is the appointment of bioethicist Leon Kass to chair a presidential council to oversee stem cell research. Kass makes no secret to his opposition to much of modern medical research. In the 1970s, he notoriously opposed research on in vitro fertilization and its later use to help tens of thousands of infertile couples to have children. A Kass-led council, unless balanced with a broad spectrum of views, could easily subvert even as much stem cell research as President Bush is authorizing. 

Ultimately, conservative worries about technological progress are rooted in a deep skepticism about human intentions. To be sure, we must be vigilant against people and ideologies–including conservatism–that might attempt to misuse technology to limit human freedom. But the plain fact is that, despite the horrors of the past century, technology and science have ameliorated far more of the ills that afflict humanity than they have exacerbated. In the end, the highest expression of our human nature is our ongoing quest to understand ever more of the world around us and to use that knowledge to enhance human life.