NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In his new book, former President George W. Bush provides a behind-the-scenes look at his landmark 2001 decision that prohibited most forms of embryonic stem cell research, acknowledging that he knew very little about the issue when he first arrived in office but explaining how six months of research led him to a conclusion he believes will be vindicated by science and history.
Bush’s “Decision Points,” No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, lays out 14 of the most significant decisions he believes shaped his life and his presidency. He devotes one of those chapters to his much-debated August 2001 decision that allowed federal money to be used for research only on embryonic stem cell lines that were in existence at the time of his speech. The decision prohibited federal dollars from going toward any lines created after that date.
Because embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of embryos, pro-lifers oppose it. Bush’s decision received mixed reviews from both sides of the issue. At the time — just weeks before the September terrorist attacks — it was considered the biggest decision yet of his young administration.
He twice vetoed bills that would have overturned his policy and allowed more embryonic stem cell lines to be funded.
His administration, Bush writes, began tackling the issue on the ninth day of his first term, when advisor Margaret Spellings briefed Bush and a domestic policy team on several issues, including stem cell research. Spellings told Bush the Clinton administration had issued guidelines permitting federal dollars for embryonic stem cell research, but that Bush had taken office before the guidelines had taken effect. Spellings began: “We have several options going forward –”
“That’s as far as she got before I cut her off. ‘First of all,’ I asked, ‘what exactly is a stem cell?'” Bush writes.
For the next six months, Bush researched the issue and listened “to experts on all sides of the debate.” He told Spellings and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten that after exploring the issue, he would reach a tentative decision and then “run it past knowledgeable people.” His staff “loaded me up with background reading” that “spanned the spectrum of viewpoints.”
“I felt pulled in both directions,” he writes. “I had no interest in joining the Flat Earth Society. I empathized with the hopes for new medical cures. I had lost a sister to childhood leukemia…. At the same time, I felt that technology should respect moral boundaries. I worried that sanctioning the destruction of human embryos for research would be a step down the slippery slope from science fiction to medical reality.
“I envisioned researchers cloning fetuses to grow spare body parts in a laboratory. I could foresee the temptation of designer babies that enabled parents to engineer their very own blond-haired basketball player. Not far beyond that lies the nightmare of full-scale human cloning.”
Wherever Bush traveled that spring and summer, he often raised the issue so as to hear various viewpoints. When he spoke at Notre Dame, he asked the university’s president about it. The next day, he spoke at Yale and asked a doctor about it. Later, he quizzed a group of physicians who were attending a White House birthday party.
“As word got out that I was seeking opinions, I was bombarded with input from Cabinet secretaries, staffers, outside advisers, and friends,” Bush writes.
Although supporters of embryonic stem cell research criticized Bush’s August 2001 policy in the subsequent years because they said they needed additional stem cell lines, Bush says in his book that experts in 2001 “believed that only a few stem cell lines would be needed to explore the science and determine its value.” He quoted Stanford researcher Irv Weissman, who told The New York Times, “If we had ten to fifteen lines, no one would complain.” Bush’s decision provided that many lines, and more.
The stem cell issue, Bush says, overlapped the abortion issue.
“My faith and conscience led me to conclude that human life is sacred,” Bush writes of abortion. “God created man in His image and therefore every person has value in His eyes. It seemed to me that an unborn child, while dependent on its mother, is a separate and independent being worthy of protection in its own right. When I saw [daughters] Barbara and Jenna on the sonogram for the first time, there was no doubt in my mind they were distinct and alive. The fact that they could not speak for themselves only enhanced society’s duty to defend them.”
After “several months of listening and reflecting,” Bush was close to a decision. A “defining moment” came during a July 10 discussion with Leon Kass, a University of Chicago expert on medical ethics who sides with pro-lifers on many issues.
“I shared an idea: What if I authorized federal funding for embryonic stem cell research — but solely for existing stem cell lines? The embryos used to create those lines had been destroyed. There was no way to get them back,” Bush writes. “But that raised another question: If I allowed federal funding for research that relied on destroyed embryos, would I be tacitly encouraging further destruction?”
Kass believed the policy would pass the ethical test, Bush writes, as long as Bush did two things: 1) make it clear the dignity of human life of the embryos had been violated, and, 2) make clear no further federal funding would be allowed.
After Bush made his decision public, he waited for reaction. By 2004, the policy was widely criticized by supporters of embryonic stem cell research. Two factors, he believes, converged to oppose his policy: money and politics. By providing researchers some funding, Bush “had whetted their appetite for more.” Similarly, advocacy groups had made “unrealistic promises” and came to believe the Bush policy was limiting the research.
“By 2004, Democrats had concluded that stem cell research was a political winner,” Bush writes. “It allowed them to open a new front in the abortion debate while also claiming the mantle of compassion. Candidates across the country ran TV ads that highlighted the benefits of embryonic stem cell research without mentioning that the science was unproven, the morality was in doubt, and ethical alternatives existed.”
Bush’s policy had allowed federal funds to be used for unlimited research in non-embryonic stem cells that come from, for instance, bone marrow, placentas, amniotic fluid and umbilical cord.
“Their research yielded new treatment for patients suffering from dozens of diseases — free of moral drawbacks,” Bush writes.
Yet that wasn’t enough for the critics. At one point in the fall of 2004, Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards told a crowd that if presidential nominee John Kerry was elected, “people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.” But no cures or treatments had come from embryonic stem cell research — a fact that remains true today. Also, private funding was and is unrestricted.
In 2009, President Obama reversed the Bush policy and dramatically expanded the types of embryonic stem cells that can be funded. The Obama policy, though, was struck down by a federal judge in 2010 as allegedly conflicting with a law that prohibits research “in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” The Obama administration appealed the ruling.
Bush does not mention Obama’s stem cell decision in his book, although Bush makes clear he believes his decision was the correct one. Bush tells how in 2007, he read a headline in The New York Times that described a new technique called induced pluriponent stem cell research in which an adult skin cell is reprogrammed to behave like an embryonic stem cell. Because embryos are not involved, there is no ethical dilemma. “Scientists Bypass Need for Embryo to Get Stem Cells,” the headline read.
“I was thrilled by the news,” Bush writes. “This was the scientific breakthrough that I had hoped for when I had made my announcement in 2001. Charles Krauthammer, one of the most insightful columnists in America and a respectful critic of my stem cell decision in 2001, wrote, ‘The verdict is clear: Rarely has a president — so vilified for a moral stance — been so thoroughly vindicated.’
Bush added, “I have faith, as I did when I announced my stem cell decision in 2001, that science and ethics can coexist.”
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.