Whatever happened to stem cell research? Well, plenty. But it does not dominate our political conversation anymore. What’s more, it has moved into morally acceptable avenues. And for that we can thank President George W. Bush.
Ten years ago this week, he made his first prime time speech and, remarkably, it was about this wedge political issue, with much elite opinion stacked against him. Yet he remained firm.
The scientific and political communities were giddy about stem cells’ potential to treat and cure ever since they were discovered in 1998. Embryonic stem cells would allow us to grow whole organs. The lame would walk, the blind would see, the deaf would hear.
And then came George Bush, that Neanderthal Christian. All that was needed for medical miracles was federal funding. Everyone wanted it, Congress, the American people, Chris Matthews.
President Bush began protracted dialogue with experts from many different fields. He met with scientists, ethicists, theologians, medical doctors, and philosophers. To many, of course, this was a no-brainer: we should just use embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.
Bush stood before the microphones on the evening of August 9, 2001 and called embryonic stem cell research “one of the most profound (issues) of our time.” He added, “most scientists, at least today, believe that research on embryonic stem cells offers the most promise because these cells have the potential to develop in all of the tissues of the body.”
Bush then addressed the ethical problems, especially two main questions. “Are these frozen embryos human life and therefore something precious to be protected? And, if they are going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn’t they be used for a great good” He had received conflicting views on each question.
There was genuine tension at the time because no one knew what he would do. He said, “At its core, this issue forces us to confront the fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science. It lives at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages.”
Near the end of this eloquent speech, Bush announced he would allow federal funding of research on sixty stem cell lines that already existed, that the U.S. government would not be about the killing of embryos. He would also fund federal research into alternative methods, and he would create a presidential commission to explore these issues and advise him.
The president speaks: August 9, 2001
The backlash was immediate, fierce, and long-lasting. Though relieved that Bush did not permit the death of hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos, even the Catholic Bishops complained that paying for experimentation on embryos already killed for their stem cells, still cooperated in evil. Many said Bush was gambling with his reelection.
His policy did not end the political controversy. Recall the speeches at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Almost every one mentioned embryonic stem cell research. John Kerry announced he would fully fund it and received thundering applause. Even Ron Reagan Jr. was invited to speak in favor of embryo-destructive research. The Democratic Party was certain they had a social wedge issue all their own.
But something was already happening, something the Bush policy nurtured. William Hurlbut of Stanford was circulating an idea he called Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT), a form of cloning he postulated would create pluripotent stem cells without a human embryo.
Hurlbut was invited onto the President’s Bioethics Commission, along with such stalwarts as Professor Robert George of Princeton, but also with opponents like Michael Sandel of Harvard and Michael Gazzaniga of UC-Santa Barbara. When Hurlbut presented ANT to the Commission, Gazzaniga mocked him, “So, we’re going to take the soul out and put it back in later?”
Hurlbut’s ethical proposal was not the only one. Donald Landry of Columbia University said we could medically recognize embryo death and then harvest their stem cells ethically, not unlike organ transplantation. At the same time, a whole host of scientists were having multiple successes with adult stem cells. Here were actual scientists grappling with profound ethical questions and working within ethical boundaries.
Often, a lack of rules results in wider chaos while narrow rules result in greater creativity – and even beauty. That is Bush’s great contribution. He encouraged scientists – and gave them room – to catch up to the ethics.
The political pressure remained, but Bush was at his bravest. Congress passed an embryo-destructive stem cell funding bill in 2006. Bush stood in the White House again, this time surrounded by “snow-flake babies,” children adopted as frozen embryos and implanted in adoptive mothers. He said, “These boys and girls are not spare parts.” A veto override was defeated the next day, largely owing to Hurlbut’s idea that embryonic stem cells could be derived ethically.
Not long after, Shinya Yamanaka announced that he had derived pluripotent stem cells (iPS) from the manipulation of adult stem cells that were reprogrammed into embryonic stem cells. The original discoverer of embryonic stem cells announced that embryos were no longer needed for research.
Game, set, match? Not by a long shot.
Hurlbut says many technical problems remain with ANT and with iPS. How could there not be? We are dusting for the finest fingerprints of our creation as humans. He says stem cells derived from embryos are still seen as the “gold standard” and that a biotech firm, Geron, has raised $200 million for such research.
But we would not have had a chance if President Bush had not stood firm on that night ten years ago this week – and remained firm through the years. Without him, this fight for human dignity would have been lost a long time ago. It is still far from over, but thanks to him and many others, we stand a very good chance of winning.