In political speechifying, what goes unsaid can count just as much as what gets blurted out. So when President Bush blatantly ignored the topic of embryonic stem-cell research in his recent State of the Union address, it's no surprise that advocates considered his silence potentially significant.
Launching into a discussion of medical research with his stock catchphrase about preserving a "culture of life," the president announced that "we should all be able to agree on some clear standards," and then declared, "I will work with Congress to ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or grown for body parts and that human life is never bought or sold as a commodity."
Whatever their merits, these "standards" have little to do with the core ethical issue in the ongoing stem-cell debate -- whether or not to expand the use of surplus in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos, which already exist and don't have to be "created," for federally funded research.
"It was no accident that he provided a very bland, watered down, vague restatement of their policy and their position," Dan Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, told me. "I have to believe that may presage some opening, some potential willingness to negotiate some kind of a change in the current policy." After all, Bush got hammered by John Kerry during the presidential campaign for restricting federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research to a small and scientifically problematic set of lines that were already in existence as of August 2001. At the height of last summer, a total of 58 U.S. senators, including such well-known progressives as Mississippi's Trent Lott, signed a letter calling for a revision in Bush's policy. At the moment, the president can hardly be said to hold a mainstream position on this issue.
However, the White House officially denies that Bush intended to send any signal about a stem-cell policy change in his recent speech. And indeed, the president's words permit a more ominous construction. His mention of ensuring that embryos "are not created for experimentation" clearly refers to a ban on so-called therapeutic cloning, much desired by Bush's religious-right supporters, such as Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, as well as most members of the President's Council on Bioethics. This legislation, which Bush has previously embraced, is a real nightmare; it would mean actual jail time for offending medical researchers.
Even considering all the other assaults on science with which Bush has been charged, his signature on such a bill would truly mark a new departure. And indeed, the president's professed moral stance on "therapeutic cloning" makes little sense in light of the latest scientific information.
At its most basic, therapeutic cloning amounts to embryonic stem-cell research Part II. For a diagram of the process, see here. In brief, scientists would extract the nucleus from a human body cell and implant it in an unfertilized egg, which would then be coaxed into dividing until it reaches the blastocyst phase, when embryonic stem cells could be extracted. South Korean scientists have already pulled this off. Many U.S. researchers think it should have happened here first.
Scientists don't want to perform this controversial research merely to provoke jeremiads from neoconservatives or to enrage the Bible Belt. And no serious scientist wants cloned human embryos implanted in wombs -- they'd be glad to see a law passed outlawing such an action.
Nevertheless, scientists foresee that down the road, "therapeutic cloning" could facilitate the growth of transplant organs from stem cells that wouldn't be subject to immune-system rejection. And there's another key benefit: As a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study of cloning pointed out, with this process you could essentially transfer the DNA of someone suffering from a genetic disease -- say, Lou Gehrigh's -- into an embryonic stem-cell line. Once scientists have such disease-specific lines available for study, they'll be able to watch the lines develop and, hopefully, gain new insights into disease processes that may someday prove the target of medical interventions.
That's a pretty good reason not to imprison American scientists who want to conduct this work. Moreover, despite Bush's hand-wringing about embryos being "created for experimentation," a strong case can be made that therapeutic-cloning research is actually less morally troubling than ordinary stem-cell research. "Cloned embryos are the most ethical embryos to work on precisely because they are the least likely to really be embryos," explains University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan.
Caplan is referring to recent research suggesting that embryos produced through cloning would have a range of abnormalities that could make them incapable of actually developing into grown human beings when implanted in a womb. Such findings have made many ethicists question the conventional wisdom, implied in Bush's recent speech, that cloned-embryo research somehow crosses a moral line that the use of IVF embryos for research does not.
As Caplan's line of argumentation suggests, advocates of embryonic stem-cell research have rethought their ethical stances when compelled by new scientific data. That's why they call it bioethics. Unfortunately, we can't say as much for the president. On August 9, 2001, Bush laid out a moral case for allowing research on a limited set of embryonic stem-cell lines. Since then, the facts have changed considerably; most dramatically, the promised lines have come to seem less a gift to science than a straitjacket. But so far, all we hear from the president is confusing -- and perhaps confused -- silence.
Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose weekly column will appear each Monday. His book on the politicization of science will be published later this year by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.