July 31, 2006 issue - July 19, 2006, was a dark day for anyone who, like me, has experienced life-threatening illness. President Bush's veto of a modest bill that would have merely allowed surplus embryos from fertility clinics to be used for pathbreaking research instead of tossed in the garbage is more than a political blunder. And for those with a friend or relative who is sick - in other words, almost everyone - it is more than an abstraction. By slowing cures for several major diseases, this decision may well doom thousands to die prematurely. It contradicts the whole idea of what it means to be "pro-life."
To get the politics out of the way first: with the veto-override attempt failing, this was a big week for the Democrats, as many GOP consultants have publicly admitted. At least some of the 193 House members and 37 senators who voted against the bill - almost all of them Republicans - may well lose their seats on this issue, if not this November then in 2008 or 2010. Once the "pro-cure" movement clarifies and penetrates, it will be awfully hard to stand firm against saving the lives of your constituents. More immediately, embryonic-stem-cell research splits the GOP down the middle, with many in the party who oppose abortion (like Sens. John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Bill Frist) supporting it.
Because this was Bush's first veto - itself a newsworthy event - he found it harder to ignore the obvious questions: If destroying an embryo is "murder" - the Bush position, according to his spokesman - how can he support the existence of fertility clinics, which routinely throw out thousands of surplus embryos? His answer lay in last week's photo op, where he surrounded himself with cute babies "adopted" from these embryos. How many such "snowflake" babies are there? Despite federal funding and intense outreach, only 128 of 400,000 frozen embryos (.032 percent) have been adopted, says Sen. Arlen Specter. It turns out that couples using the clinics overwhelmingly prefer to donate their surplus embryos to science, while couples looking to adopt prefer babies already born who need homes, a large constituency of extremely needy children Bush seems to have put in second place.
"Anti-cure" activists have been reduced to two arguments for why federal support of embryonic-stem-cell research is unnecessary. The first is that private and state efforts are filling the gap. But the $3 billion California voters approved in 2004 has been tied up in lawsuits; so far, only $12.1 million has been spent. And even when more money is released, much of it will be wasted creating duplicative labs, because no lab that receives federal financing can take part in embryonic-stem-cell research.
The second argument made by opponents is that noncontroversial adult-stem-cell research is so promising that there's no need to mess with embryos. This is contrary to the principle of science, which is that you move ahead with all reasonable approaches because there's no telling what will work. These folks also hoped to confuse voters. In 2004, they did. Politicians could say they supported "stem-cell research" and avoid the fact that they opposed the embryonic part that holds the greatest promise for the most diseases.
Unfortunately, Democrats have been playing politics with people's lives, too. In order to keep opponents from fuzzing up the issue, they've often been slow to support promising new adult-stem-cell advances. GOP Sen. Sam Brownback made a preposterous floor speech last week comparing stem-cell research to destroying bald-eagle eggs. But to his credit, it was Brownback who made sure last year that the Senate, with Bush's support, overwhelmingly approved a bill funding a bank for umbilical-cord blood, an exciting breakthrough that can make transplants safer and more effective for thousands of people suffering from leukemia, lymphoma and a few other diseases.
If Sen. Mike Enzi and other key legislators would accelerate funding, the cord-blood bank can meet the need - and save many lives - in two or three years instead of six or seven. With more than 1,000 clinical trials underway for adult-stem-cell treatments, both parties need to acknowledge that federally funded embryonic research is dead for at least two and a half years and push much harder on the alternatives.
It is now almost five years since Bush's August 2001 stem-cell "compromise," which allowed for work on 60 existing cell lines. When most of those lines turned out to be unworkable or irrelevant to cures for humans, he didn't let the new facts affect him. In that sense, the whole issue is emblematic of what's wrong with the Bush presidency: his inflexibility, obsession with his conservative base, religious arrogance and contempt for scientific consensus. Most of all, last week's decision betrayed his oft-stated belief in the sanctity of life. The question, as in all moral issues, is whose life? I'll choose yours or mine over a piece of protoplasm no larger than the period at the end of this sentence.