Bush's Deadly Blunder

One of Obama's first acts must be to overturn Bush's ignorant ban on federal funding for stem cell research. Then American scientists can compete with the rest of the world to cure life threatening illnesses.

As we glance back at the gravest blunders of the Bush administration, let us ponder this one: In August 2001, Bush issued an executive order blocking federal funding for embryonic stem cell research except for some lines that were still in existence. “It’s wrong to destroy life in order to save life,” he explained. That required one to agree that a group of cells the size of the period at the end of this sentence is as important as a desperately ill human being.

Bush may have severely limited what research America could engage in, but he couldn’t build a cognitive wall around the United States. Scientific developments in other nations were written up in refereed journals and became universally available. And support for Bush’s position was crumbling within the U.S. In 2004, voters in California passed a resolution authorizing the state to spend $4 billion to support embryonic stem cell research. This immediately became the subject of litigation, but Governor Schwarzenegger enabled California laboratories to proceed by lending them money from state funds. With California now funding the research, American scientists who had moved to Singapore returned to work in California.

Private universities, Harvard and others, also went forward with their own funds. In 2004, Harvard created a multi-million dollar Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which will occupy prime real estate in the vast new Allston science campus. Since 2004, the HSCI has been a leading force in research, making dozens of new stem cell lines available for scientists nationwide.

Bush may have severely limited what research America could engage in, but he couldn’t build a cognitive wall around the United States.

One concrete example of what these efforts have wrought: A major problem has existed for the therapeutic use of embryonic stem cells. To prevent rejection of the cells by the patient’s immune system, they needed to be cloned. That is, a nucleus from the cell of the patient had to be substituted in a donor’s egg for the original nucleus. But in September, Rob Stein reported that in a major breakthrough, Harvard scientists have found a new way to reprogram cells backwards, turning them into embryos. Instead of using a retrovirus (as Japanese scientists had done) that can cause cancer, they are using an adenovirus which is safe. This would avoid the long-standing cloning problem.

Pluripotent embryonic stem cells develop to eventually create an entire human being. They also possess the capability of repairing damaged organs, and treating such conditions as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and spinal cord and other nerve injuries. Bush’s own bio-ethics committee, and its chairman Leon Kass, voted in favor of federal funding, though with minor qualifications.

No doubt Bush’s executive order reflected evangelical and Catholic support for his position, as seen with the evangelical leader James Dobson and the exponent of Catholic Natural Law, Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton.

But the following conservative publications also vigorously supported Bush’s position: National Review, The Weekly Standard, The American Conservative, Commentary, The Claremont Review of Books, and First Things. National Review editorialized, “A single embryo must not be destroyed no matter how noble the goal.”

None of these conservative publications reviewed Cynthia Fox’s important book, Cell of Cells (2007) Fox, a science journalist, described the vigorous embryonic stem cell research that was then going forward in Israel, Singapore (which was making a huge investment), South Korea, Japan, and China, in cooperation with the EU. Some scientists in Egypt tried to start up a program, but ran into problems from their government--not ethical, but because they were exchanging emails with Israeli scientists.

Meanwhile, large majorities of voters and their representatives in Congress support federal funding but could not muster the two-thirds vote needed to override the Bush veto. But the political landscape has been changing.

Barack Obama has long been a vocal proponent of embryonic stem cell research, voting in favor of it when he was in the Illinois legislature. He continued to support it as a U.S. Senator, where he joined 40 of his colleagues to support federal funding. As he said in his supportive speech:

This bill embodies the innovative thinking that we as a society demand and medical advancement requires. By expanding scientific access to embryonic stem cells which would be otherwise discarded, this bill will help our nation’s scientists and researchers develop treatments and cures to help people who suffer illnesses and injuries for which there are currently none.

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John McCain voted for federal funding in 2007, thundering about thousands of frozen embryos. But during his successful run in the 2008 primaries, McCain, for obvious reasons, muted his support for the research with conditions, saying in answer to a questionnaire from a group of scientists that “clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral value and ethical principles for scientific progress.”

Obama is now president-elect. He has promised to issue an executive order that will cancel Bush’s 2001 order blocking federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But how much damage has Bush already caused in the inevitable march toward stem cell therapy? The United States has the best scientific infrastructure in the world, and he probably has inhibited scientific work somewhat by blocking federal funding. Bush may have discouraged some of the best graduate students from going into the stem cell research field. He certainly has earned himself a footnote in the history of science for doing what he could to block medical progress for political and religious reasons.

In that respect, he joins the Catholic Natural Law advocates in the Vatican who sought to ban smallpox vaccination on the grounds that it is unnatural to mix human blood with cow serum.

All of this deserves a fifth book added to the four of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad.

Jeffrey Hart is professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College. He wrote for the National Review for more than three decades, where he was senior editor. He wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, when governor of California, and for Richard Nixon.