John Leo

John Kerry has repeatedly spoken of President Bush's "ban" on stem cell research. Kerry knows very well it isn't a "ban" or that Bush isn't "shutting down" research. But "ban" is a powerfully emotional word. It has more impact on swing voters than "allowing private research, but not using taxpayer money for work on stem cell lines derived after Aug. 9, 2001."

Congressional Democrats have used this maneuver before, accusing Republicans of plans to "cut" Social Security (big emotional impact there) when the Republicans actually just wanted to reduce the rate of increase in funding. "Cut," like "ban," wasn't truthful, just useful.

The fact is that stem cell research is swimming in readily available funds. With luck, the elite press corps will discover this some time in October, and maybe even ask Kerry about it. The federal government is providing $24.8 million in research funds, which is $24.8 million more than  President Clinton offered. Money is pouring in from state governments, universities and pharmaceutical companies. If Kerry thinks this financial gusher still amounts to a ban, maybe he could get the Heinz Foundation or George Soros to pitch in.

Kerry spins the stem cell issue by saying, "Here in America, we don't sacrifice science for ideology." This is a line he has been using for weeks. It delivers two messages, both false: (1) there is no legitimate moral issue here (though plenty of bioethicists and plenty of Kerry supporters think there is); and therefore (2) this is a one-sided issue, pitting enlightened people against backward ideological types.

Kerry is demagoging the issue, but in a sophisticated way, echoing the debate at the Scopes trial (science vs. religion) without explicitly raising the religion issue. According to a report in The Washington Post, "ideology trumps science" is the theme of a lobbying effort to discredit objections to more federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

But Bush did not impose ideology; he came out with a compromise that gave each side of the stem cell debate half a loaf, allowing federal funding and research, but not federal support for work on new stem cell lines. Politicians almost always seek compromises, and here Bush was trying to accommodate people who see no moral problem in working with microscopic embryos, and those (count me in) who don't want to pay scientists to create human beings so they can dismember them for research.

(Yes, "human beings" stacks the argument, implying personhood. We need a different word. They are infinitesimal and not persons, but they are developing human entities. No matter what term you use, you are talking about human life and the issue of whether it is morally acceptable to kill it.)

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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