President Bush on Embryonic Stem Cells

Yes, the decision ensures for the time being that no more embryos will be destroyed for the sake of federal funding, but the scientific community will predictably come up with any number of reasons why 60 cells lines are insufficient to produce the potential benefits.

But there was good news in the president’s announcement as well. First, the lion’s share of the funding ($250 million) will go toward research on stem cells taken from adults, umbilical cords, and placentas. Second, the president reiterated his unequivocal opposition to human cloning. Third, there will be a commission established to oversee stem cell research headed by perhaps the most respected bioethicist in the U.S., Dr. Leon Kass of the University of Chicago.

The selection of Dr. Kass should give the prolife community a sense of security that the implementation of this policy will not slide down the slippery slope. Kass, who is a physician, philosopher, and Jewish theologian, has long been the most eloquent and persuasive spokesman for the original meaning of the Hippocratic oath.

The president’s speech was also remarkable for its near-scholastic weighing of pros and cons before coming to a conclusion. If he was intending to set a civil and rational tone for subsequent debate, then let us hope he succeeds. This kind of careful sifting of argument and deliberation gives the truth its best chance of coming into view.

The only verbal misstep in his speech was describing embryos as possessing “potential for life.” All human life, strictly speaking, contains potential, because it is constantly changing. But what remains constant is human identity — it does not undergo change or diminution with any physical change.

To describe an embryo as having “potential for life” sounds like calling it something less than human. Bush, who has stated publicly his belief that life begins at conception, should avoid such terminology in the future.

There will be numerous questions about the effect of this decision on the president’s well-publicized outreach to Catholic voters. Much will depend on what Catholics hear from their bishops and priests. Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has already termed the decision “unacceptable.” But criticism from Catholic leaders of Clinton’s partial birth abortion veto did nothing to keep him from receiving the majority of the Catholic vote in 1996.

It will be interesting to compare the Catholic reaction of Bush’s stem cell decision to Clinton’s on partial birth abortion. There will be some who will want to use the Bush decision as a wedge issue to divide him from his Catholic constituents — others will simply be expressing disappointment in one they believed was a solidly prolife president.

It should be obvious that Bush, from a prolife perspective, is doing many things right — the Mexico City Policy, Attorney General John Ashcroft’s appoinment, and judicial nominations — even if this decision is off the mark.

(Deal Hudson is editor and publisher of CRISIS, America's fastest growing Catholic magazine. He is also an advisor to President Bush. You can reach Deal at

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