Countdown time for Bush

Posted: Jul 30, 2001 12:00 AM
Yesterday an old and revered friend, in casual conversation over the telephone, said that President Bush will soon be ruling on the matter of embryonic-stem-cell research. "Of course, I'm for it, and you're against it." His wife suffers from aggravated Parkinson's disease, and the planted axiom of his enthusiasm for embryonic-stem-cell research was that it carried the hope that other women in future times would not suffer from what his wife, to whom he is so devoted, has borne. In such situations one maneuvers to change the subject; but you can't do that when at the opinion bar, which prompts from this quarter some pragmatic observations.

Embryonic-stem-cell research (ESCR) is going to take place. There are three policies our government could take on the matter: (1) The president could direct federal money to research centers that could proceed with the experimentation. (2) The president could veto the use of federal money for ESCR. (3) Congress could pass a law prohibiting ESCR within the borders of the United States.

If Bush says OK, use federal money, a body of Americans will be morally affronted. If Bush says no, ESCR will proceed in private laboratories at a lesser speed. If Congress prohibited the research, ESCR would struggle on in less sophisticated laboratories, and the benefits of successful embryonic manipulation would not inure to American embryology until complicated interactivity was effected across national medical frontiers.

Mr. Bush could temporize without moral ignominy if he reasoned as follows: We live in a society in which abortion is permitted. That being so, we have come to civil terms with the termination of fetal life every day, routinely. However much pro-lifers disapprove of the woman's decision to abort, they do not treat her as a pariah. If termination of fetal life is, under the law, permitted, then ESCR, which deals with pre-fetal life, cannot reasonably be denied without vitalizing a new moral consensus on the issue of the integrity of the unborn. But what Mr. Bush needs to avoid is the quandary of encouraging federal participation in ESCR, which translates to federal participation in the embryonic equivalent of abortion. The distinction here is vital.

The moral difficulty lies in presidential association with one or the other body of thought on embryonic-stem-cell research. The learned and quick-witted Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review is unyielding on the rigors of the slippery-slope argument. "Slippery slopes are slippery because the logic that starts you down them will lead you further down. During the stem cell debate, people have said that it's OK to use embryos for research because we already 'discard'

plenty of embryos as a byproduct of in vitro fertilization; they could with equal validity say that we should allow research on 5-month-old fetuses because we allow them to be aborted." And he reminds us of diminished sensibilities. "In 1973, not even pro-abortion lawyers were challenging Texas' law against partial-birth abortion. Back then, embryo-killing research would have seemed monstrous."

Richard Brookhiser, the historian and essayist, writing in The New York Observer, acknowledges that in the Clinton years there was crystallizing resistance to partial-birth abortions. "With the debate over ESCR, the empire strikes back. On one side, the public is given to understand, are the opponents of abortion, certainly fanatical and probably religious, keening over lumps of cells. On the other is the research arm of the medical profession, asking only to be allowed to discover cures for Parkinson's disease. ... Should Mr. Bush swallow an existing evil to ban a new and growing one?

"... The scientific supporters of ESCR, and their political allies, want research untrammeled by any restrictions. If that involves what pro-life author Wesley J. Smith calls 'strip-mining human life,' so be it. They strip-mine mountains in Pennsylvania; they can strip-mine embryos."

So then the political question is, really, whether there should be evidence of passive resistance by George W. Bush. Leadership here requires him to formulate ways of saying that opposition to the use of federal money for embryonic-stem-cell research is not the equivalent of indifference to the pain suffered by victims of Parkinson's disease.

"It's too late in the day to be taking polls," Mr. Brookhiser concludes. "All they would show is that there is nothing to be gained, whatever he does. Sen. (Arlen) Specter won't love President Bush even if he supports ESCR; Catholic voters, lazy and indifferent, won't support him if he agrees with the pope. The only standard that can possibly guide Mr. Bush is to do the right thing. We will see if he knows what that is."

That is the challenge, to know what is the right thing.