Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Stem Cells, Then and Now

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From First Things blog...
Posted by Joseph Bottum on December 27, 2007, 12:45 PM

In the January issue of Commentary, there’s a fascinating article called “Stem Cells and the President—An Inside Account,” written by Jay Lefkowitz, who was the official “primarily responsible for advising the President” on the issue of stem cells during the debates that produced Bush’s compromise in the summer of 2001.

In “Stem Cells and the President,” Lefkowitz writes, “Now that the debate seems to be over, what can we say about Bush’s policy and the long months it took for him to devise it? I think it is fair to look upon it as a model of how to deal with the complicated scientific and ethical dilemmas that will continue to confront political leaders in the age of biotechnology.”

That’s a large claim, and it requires not only thinking about how recent breakthroughs have changed the debate but also remembering what the situation was like in 2001. There’s a touch of beyondism in the Commentary piece—a bit of the move that suggests “We must have been correct because we were attacked from both the left and the right.” It’s true, for example, that Judie Brown, the president of the American Life League, told the New York Times that after the stem-cell compromise in 2001 President Bush could “no longer describe himself as pro-life.” But if being attacked at some point by the hard-line American Life League is the criterion, few of us would qualify as pro-life.

For that matter, the two sides would gradually change their opinions in opposite directions: Many on the supporters of stem-cell researcher—including, as Lefkowitz notes, the actor Christopher Reeve and Irving Weissman of Stanford—began with mild praise of the decision and moved over the next three years to raging opposition.

Meanwhile, the compromise was generally received with mild disappointment by the pro-life side (including by First Things, which characterized the compromise as “morally defensible in principle but gravely imprudent.”) But the political left increasingly decided the issue was a winning one, and their attacks on President Bush escalated until, at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, the phrase stem cells was spoken from the dais dozens of times, in nearly every major speech—while the word abortion was never heard. The effect of all this work by the left was that, across the nation, Bush’s 2001 position was no longer understood as a compromise. The Democrats insisted it was a complete surrender to a pro-life extremism, and the nation, I think, came to believe the Democrats (and voted, one notes, for President Bush over John Kerry anyway—or, perhaps, voted for Bush precisely because of what it perceived as the president’s enduring pro-life stand).

Still, Lefkowitz is basically right about the reaction to the president’s address on August 9, 2001: It pleased no one particularly at the time. He attributes the president’s position to Bush’s courage in 2001, but, the man’s courage may have been better displayed by the fact that Bush stuck to his compromise even as the Democrats and the mainstream media ginned the issue up into one of the major themes of the elections of 2004, 2006, and 2008. Or, rather, what was going to be one of the major issues of the 2008 election, until this year’s breakthroughs suddenly changed the entire landscape of the debate—and gave an enormous victory to the pro-life side.

Let’s think for a moment, however, about the 2001 compromise. We tend to forget that confusion and disorganization in the first days of the Bush administration helped produce the original political crisis over stem cells: An executive order, issued in the first flurry of such orders as the new administration took office, might well have passed without comment for some time.

Once the issue was on the table, however, Bush was forced to act in the full glare of publicity. It’s easy to accept Lefkowitz’s claim that the 2001 compromise seemed the clearest solution at the time. But Lefkowitz makes too easy an elision to move from there to the claim that the recent breakthroughs are a vindication of Bush’s 2001 position—for that would require showing that the new results would not have happened, or would have happened slower, if Bush had instead refused to fund even previously created stem-cell lines.

Meanwhile, it’s not as though Bush’s compromise bought him much respite from attacks by the pro-research world or the political left. And though his speech on August 9, 2001, was a brilliant one, he missed—as he has often missed during his presidency—the chance to educate the public on the deeper pro-life position.

And yet, along the way, the public did get educated. The political left’s endless attacks on the 2001 compromise made it seem less of a compromise and more of an entirely pro-life stand. And then the new breakthroughs suddenly stranded the attackers in odd and unsustainable positions. Lefkowitz is surely right that all this marks a great triumph for President Bush. But it is one with many twists and turns between 2001 and 2007.

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