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Jewish World Review August 17, 2001 / 28 Meanchem-Av 5761

Morton Kondracke

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To avoid 'Brave New World,' Bush will delay cures -- GIVING the weakest possible go-ahead for federal embryonic stem-cell research funding, President Bush avoided political disaster but made it certain that debate will continue in Congress and elsewhere.

In effect, Bush labored his brain and heart for months and came up with a mouse of a decision - to allow federally funded scientists to work only with existing cell lines, almost certainly slowing down development of potential disease cures.

Bush and administration officials claimed that 60 such lines exist around the world, but scientists advising the leading pro-stem-cell disease coalition say that only 10 or so lines exist in the United States and not all of them may be suitable for research.

The cells at issue are taken from the inner core of days-old embryos, which have to be destroyed in the process, hence creating an ethical dilemma.

Stem cells have the potential to develop into any kind of tissue in the body, offering the promise of curing maladies ranging from diabetes and heart disease to neurological diseases and severe burns.

Although more than 150,000 embryos are in cold storage at in vitro fertilization clinics, and the vast majority are destined for destruction, Bush decided to ban federally backed research on any newly derived cells, limiting it to cells from already destroyed embryos.

(As readers of this column know, my wife, Milly, suffers from advanced Parkinson's disease. Despite my full support for stem-cell research, I understand the ethical difficulties of the issue.)

Bush rejected a compromise proposed by conservative Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that would have allowed federal research using newly derived cells - though not on an unlimited basis.

Disease groups were prepared to applaud Bush had he accepted the Frist formulation, though the right-to-life movement and the

Roman Catholic Church would have condemned it.

Bush's decision clearly was preferable, both politically and from a research standpoint, to the outright funding ban he supported during the 2000 presidential campaign.

But by hesitating to impose a ban at the outset of his administration, Bush allowed the stem-cell issue to become a national controversy in which a majority of Americans support funding the research.

In a Zogby poll released hours before Bush's speech on Thursday night, likely voters favored the research by a margin of 52 to 30 percent. Even self-described conservatives favored it narrowly, 42 to 37 percent, and Catholics supported it by 49 to 31 percent.

So many anti-abortion Republicans supported the research - including GOP Sens. Frist, John McCain (Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) - that a ban would have isolated Bush with the most conservative elements of his party, belying the notion that he is a "different kind of Republican."

A ban also was likely to be rejected by Congress, which now certainly will debate Bush's decision and possibly vote to expand research along the lines of the Frist proposal or the policy of the Clinton administration, which barred only federal funding of actual embryo destruction.

Just before it left for the August break, the House held the first of what is likely to be extensive debate on bioethics, finally voting 265-162 to ban all cloning of human embryos.

But before the final vote, no fewer than 178 House Members supported an amendment sponsored by Reps. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) and Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) to permit creation of human embryos for research purposes, an astounding and disturbing number considering current ethical norms.

Opponents mainly argued there is a danger that embryos created for research could instead be implanted in women to produce cloned children, raising the specter of ghastly deformities, given past experience with animal cloning.

But an even greater danger would be a slippery slope toward what House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) called "Brave New World Frankenstein science" if days-old embryos can be created and be destroyed for stem cells, it's also possible they could be "grown" for weeks or months to harvest organs.

Proponents of so-called "therapeutic cloning" argued, though, that stem cells derived from embryos other than one's own clone might be rejected when implanted to cure diseases.

The surprising extent of support for cloning embryos suggests that Bush was probably correct in being cautious, and in relying on such ethical conservatives as Prof. Leon Kass of the University of Chicago for future guidance.

Kass wrote in The New Republic in May that "modern medicine is daily becoming ever more powerful in its battle against disease, decay and death ... for which we must surely be grateful."

However, he wrote, "present and projected advances in genetic and reproductive technologies, in neuroscience and pharmacology and in the development of artificial organs and computer-chip implants for human brains" mean that "human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and psychic 'enhancement,' for wholesale redesign."

Probably under Kass' influence, Bush looked down the road - and maybe read Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" - and pulled back. On stem-cell research, however, he pulled back too far.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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