President Bush’s 2001 executive order regarding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was one of the wisest, most thought-through, reasonable decisions of his time in office.
Contrary to his ill-deserved reputation as an anti-intellectual and impulsive decision maker, he spent months considering what his administration’s position on the research would be. He listened to arguments from all sides. Basically the dilemma was this: there is potential for medical treatments to be developed from embryonic stem cells, but creating more “lines” of these stem cells for research typically involves the destruction of human embryos– the destruction of human life.
In the end, he came up with a reasonable and ethical middle road. He permitted federal funding for research on the twenty-odd existing stem cell lines, but not for the creation of new ones. This permitted research to go forward without our government– that is, taxpayer money– funding the destruction of human genetic material.
(Update: Charles Krauthammer, a brilliant commentator with something of a personal stake in this research, said this last night:
I disagreed with where Bush ended up drawing the line on permissible research, but he gave in August of 2001 the single most morally serious presidential speech on medical ethics ever given, and Obama did not, even though… I agree more on where he ended up.)
Reading the headlines recently, you’d never know any of this. Most articles have said something like “The Bush administration cut off federal funding for stem cell research,” which is nothing short of a lie. But when President Obama reversed this decision yesterday, he contributed to this false view of Bush’s policy, saying “Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values.” Bush forced no such false choice– he allowed the science to go forward in a manner consistent with moral values.
Obama, on the other hand, has removed all ethical constraints of any kind from embryonic stem cell research (which many believe is far less promising than ethically-unproblematic adult stem cell research). As the editors of National Review put it, “Obama has not so much staked out a position in the embryo debate as dismissed the debate itself as unnecessary.”
It remains to be seen whether embryonic stem cell research can live up to its hype. (You may recall the 2004 campaign, when John Edwards declared “If we can do the work that we can do in this country — the work we will do when John Kerry is president — people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk. Get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”) But even if the wildest-dream, best-case scenario happens– say, a cure for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s– and it’s brought about by the destruction of human life, we won’t have gained anything.