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The Politics of Bioethics

From the May 10, 2004 issue: Playing defense isn't enough.

May 10, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 33 • By ERIC COHEN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"NOTHING ILLUSTRATES this administration's anti-science attitude better than George Bush's cynical decision to limit research on embryonic stem cells," declared John Kerry in a December 2003 campaign speech. He was referring to the president's August 9, 2001, decision to permit federal funding for existing embryonic stem cell lines, where the embryos in question had already been destroyed, but to deny funding for research involving further embryo destruction.

Ever since President Bush announced his stem cell policy, research advocates have attacked it as "not enough." They want more funding for more lines, without restrictions. They want the freedom to produce embryonic stem cell lines indefinitely, using as many embryos as necessary to advance research on a long list of terrible diseases. The idea of limits--in this case, no taxpayer funding for new embryo destruction--strikes them as incomprehensible and indefensible. In this spirit, Kerry attacks the Bush administration's "recessive gene of pessimism about progress and people," and declares that when "faced with a basic decision on America's health, George Bush chose to go to the right wing instead of the right way." Kerry aims to portray the Democrats as the party of health and progress, the Republicans as the party of suffering, death, and religious zeal.

The question is: How will President Bush respond? No doubt he will defend his policy on federal funding. And no doubt he will argue that the eligible stem cell lines are "enough" to get the medical benefits we seek, and that the issue is fundamentally about "respecting human life," not using it as a means to even the noblest ends. But it is not clear that simply playing defense on this and other bioethics issues will succeed. Indeed, over 200 congressmen sent a letter to the president last week demanding that the current restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research be lifted. Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that limits on federal funding alone do not guarantee our successfully navigating the "vast ethical mine fields" that President Bush warned of in his stem cell speech. This means reexamining what we have learned in the bioethics fight since it began in earnest in 2001, and sketching what a realistic offense might look like in the months and years ahead.

Since the president announced his stem cell policy in August 2001, the science of the brave new world has continued apace--not just the destruction of human embryos on a growing scale, but the manipulation of human reproduction in radical new ways. In its latest report, Reproduction and Responsibility, the President's Council on Bioethics finds that the practice of assisted reproduction technology (ART) is largely unregulated. New baby-making technologies are introduced willy-nilly into clinical practice, with little research regarding their effects on the children produced with their aid. Because so many embryos are implanted all at once, nearly half the children born using ART are twins or triplets with disproportionately and often dangerously low birth weights. Some ART clinics already advertise cosmetic baby-making services--such as preimplantation genetic screening to choose the sex of one's child--and these services only promise to increase as our genetic knowledge expands. And it is the ART clinics and their patients that produce thousands of "excess" embryos each year--embryos that are frozen indefinitely or destroyed for research.

Meanwhile, in February 2004, South Korean scientists announced the creation of the first cloned human embryos to the blastocyst stage--the stage when they could be implanted in a woman's uterus to initiate a pregnancy or destroyed in the laboratory to harvest stem cells. The report in Science magazine sounds hauntingly like the "decanting room" in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World--systematic, precise, unrepentant about its use of women as egg factories and human embryos as raw materials. The South Koreans harvested 242 eggs from 16 women, tested 14 different cloning "protocols," developed 30 human embryos to the 100-cell stage, and destroyed them all to get a single stem cell line.