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 becomesĀ  emblematic of the entire contemptible George W Bush presidency.