What Bush Got Wrong on Stem Cells

Jul 17th, 2008 | By | Category: Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Featured Articles


W’s August of 2001 speech on the evils of embryonic stem cells was an early classic of his presidency, one of the first indications of his deciderish, rather than uniter-not-a-divider, tendencies. All his favorite hobbies were covered–simpleminded and peevish sanctimony, rigid adherence to a bizarre and inconsistently absolutist moral code, and disinterest in any sort of logical, thoughtful or informed critique. In short, it was a delightful preview of the following eight years.

Bush’s policy was to deny federal funding for any research on new embryonic stem cell lines created after August of 2001. This wasn’t a ban. Nor was it a system of regulations, well thought out or idiotic. Research involving any embryonic stem cell line created before August of 2001, all requiring the destruction of an embryo? Fine. Dandy. Not murder. Moral, according to Bush. On a line after August 2001? Murder, as it involves the destruction of an embryo–a murder good decent American taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to participate in, even indirectly.

Put another way: Under the Bush policy, if you have money you can do whatever you damn well please. Commission embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them? No problem. Pay women for their eggs? Sure. Create a jello-mold out of human embryo? If you have the cash, you can do it.

Federal funding of contentious research buys you, the public, the right to set rules and demand oversight. Ask the animal rights activists. Instead of banning federal funding for animal research, they focused on demanding massive regulation and oversight. Killing a mouse in a research lab involves a prodigious amount of paperwork, hours of training and going in front of a panel of vets to explain yourself. Even if your research is privately funded, most non-federal grants require you to follow the federal grant rules. Bush’s innovative policy of “do what you want, just not with our dollars” successfully shoved the most ethically contentious work out of the public’s eye and into the shadows.

Well, weren’t some embryos saved? Hundreds of thousands of fertilized embryos are sitting in cryogenic storage at in-vitro fertilization clinics around the country, largely because it is much more difficult to freeze unfertilized human eggs. Therefore, eggs collected for fertility treatment are typically fertilized with sperm, allowed to develop for a few days into a very young embryo and then frozen. The overwhelming majority of these embryos will eventually be destroyed, after the couple has decided they want no more children and the insurance stops paying for storage.

If you really believe that human life begins when the egg fuses with the sperm–as Bush’s new family planning policy assertsthis is the worst imaginable outcome. At least with federally funded embryonic stem cell research, a few of these embryos destined for destruction could be used to generate new embryonic stem cell lines, advancing medical science and potentially improving human health.

(I think calling an embryo at this stage a human being is a serious stretch of even the most generous definition of what makes a human. These embryos have only developed for a few days, to somewhere around 100 cells. They are not yet individuals. If you cut the embryo in half, you get twins; smash two together, and you get a chimera. Not a single organ has developed, not a drop of blood, not the heart, not a blood vessel, not a single brain cell. An embryo at this point is literally an undistinguished clump of two different kinds of cells. The essense of humanity and human life seems more to me than sets of chromosmes coming together.)

By the 2006 election, the majority of the population recognized the cravenness of the decision. the Democratic party was practically falling over itself in support of stem cell research, in words if not funds after the election.

The iPS cell breakthrough this fall seemed to change the game. Simply by adding four genes, we could convert most any adult cell into something that resembled an embryonic stem cell. If we can turn skin cells or swabbed cheek cells into something like an embryonic stem cell, we no longer need to bother with destroying embryos. Right? Discussion of stem cell policy quietly dwindled. The president appeared to be a forward thinking visionary, saving thousands of embryos from doom in the name of science.

Well did he? No.

From a social conservative’s point of view, Bush’s policies were and are a total fiasco. Not a single embryo is saved from ultimate destruction, as the IVF industry remains without serious regulation. By delaying research, human health was harmed. An opportunity for a serious discussion and enduring compromise on both fertility treatments and stem cell research was bypassed for political expediency.

The moment was there, and we had some decent models to apply to this ethical quandary. Take the example of German IVF clinics, where the number of embryos generated and stored per couple is strictly regulated, vastly reducing the number of excess embryos to be eventually destroyed. A slightly more liberal position would be to absolutely prohibit the sale or purchase of human embryos, only allowing donation much like we do with solid organ donation today. Nor did we discuss why there is such a need for fertility treatments–environmental degredation and the costs of having a child delaying pregnancy.

Even from a scientist’s point of view, this was a total fiasco—far worse than an outright ban. At least with a complete ban, those with private funding sources, such as endowments, would not be at such an advantage. All efforts could focus on alternatives. Japan had a near total ban on embryonic stem cell research; iPS cells were developed in Japan.

Whatever you think of the status of an early embryo, the Bush policies were a disaster–achieving the neither the desires of the infirmed seeking therapy nor the social conservatives seeking protection of very early embryos. When considering the long lasting societal costs of demonizing scientists, medical research, patient advocates and rational discussion, the whole situation becomes  emblematic of the entire contemptible George W Bush presidency.

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  1. Emblematic, indeed. It successfully encapsulates all the maddening planks on the neocon platform, several of which you touch on (contempt for reason, empty moral posturing absent any consistent ethical argument), and a few you missed. For instance, the mania for privatization: As you mention, rulings like this put private researchers at an enormous advantage. While the position “do what you want, but not with our dollars” may seem ethically inconsistent, it is perfectly consistent with the Grover Norquist era where governmental oversight is replaced by “market forces.” If private research yields treatments that only the very wealthy can afford, hey that’s just the magic of the marketplace, right? At least Dick Cheney will be able to afford life-extending gene therapy.

    The glaring ethical contradiction of declaring stem-cell research to be murder only after a certain date and only if it’s publicly funded is perfectly consistent with the reality of abortion laws for the wealthy: If it’s your mistress or your daughter who needs an abortion, time for a little European vacation! The wealthy have always maintained this option for themselves, even while simultaneously decrying abortion as murder in public. And, for those truly opposed to abortion, there’s always the Strom Thurmond option, where you pay the mother some hush money to keep quiet about your indiscretions. Needless to say, these are not options available to anybody but the most privileged.

    Opposition to stem cell research is just a natural extension of the post-Reagan Republican platform of pandering to evangelicals in order to get poor people to vote against their economic interests. The only silver lining is many of those who have the luxury of opposing abortion because they don’t see it as their problem (this encompasses the aged and those without uteruses as well as a whole host of people who are in some profound state of denial) stand to benefit from stem cell research. Some of the most prominent voices in favor of stem cell research are older conservatives who suddenly realize that it might actually extend their lives or the lives of their loved ones. It’s amazing how a personal stake in outcomes leads to such epiphanies.

  2. It appears this administration has an attitude of ‘keep them sick to sell more pills”, obviously to repay the big pharmaceutical companies for their huge monetary support of the election processes.
    Why am I bitter?? My husband was in need of stem cell therapy to keep him alive as he suffered for years with a weakened enlarged heart. The demand from Americans is so great he could not get scheduled OUT OF THE COUNTRY, until March 4 of this year but his poor heart gave out while waiting. There should have been no controversy as the procedure he was to have had was entirely with the use of his own blood, no embryos, just take your blood, ship it to lab in Israel to incubate and enhance cells, return it to patient a week later, for heart via catherization. Success rate proven at 78%. What happens to the other 22%? Nothing, they don’t get worse and there is no rejection as this is the patients own blood, nothing foreign.
    I hate that I have to be all alone now and my best friend for 40 years wasn’t given the chance he deserved. He was a 22 year Viet Nam disabled veteran who loved his country. If he was here to ask now, he might not be such a gung ho proud American now. I love our country but literally hate the direction and downward spiral it has taken.

  3. Just imagine if democratic was in power, then many of disease would be able to be treated by stem cells such diabetes , Alzheimer and many others.

  4. I agree with you that Bush got wrong on stem cell research but for entirely different reasons. I think Bush’s policy pushed back embryonic stem cell research in US by decades. People desperately looking for stem cell therapy are now forced to seek treatment in far off countries like China and India, simply because Bush and his conservative zealots don’t care about the human life, about diseased and suffering millions in US and worldwide. People who have suffered like Christopher Reeves understand the value of stem cell research and ESC. Unless you suffer or better yet watch your near and dear ones suffer and die, most conservatives wouldn’t understand the importance of ESC research. ESC hold the promise to literally cure any disease. I think the pro-life arguments like potentiality arguments are baseless drivel when millions of embryos are destroyed anyway every year in US, not to mention sperms.
    Religious interference in US is pushing back real science as it did in the pre-renaissance era (Giordano Bruno etc.).

  5. Angsuman,

    I agree with you that from a patient seeking therapy point of view, Bush’s entire policy was incredibly callous. Isn’t it intriguing that even from a social conservative’s point of view–someone who really believes life starts at fertilization of the egg–the policy is also a failure?

  6. […] that the policy was founded on some (other than his own) good ethical grounding.  As one of my stem cell researching colleagues recently reminded me, this policy overlooked what should be the basic objection to hESC research in […]

  7. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  8. Incredible… I wonder how this thing will work with in vitro methods.

  9. I was reading through some of your articles on this website and I believe this internet site is rattling instructive! Keep posting .

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