Comment: The Great Obfuscator

President Bush's heavily choreographed decision
to support "limited" stem cell research generated the desired headlines and TV
commentary. He had anguished over the decision, we were told, and navigated a
prudent course between zealous scientists who would play God and zealous
traditionalists who claim a pipeline to God. Under Bush's guidelines, stem cell
research can qualify for federal funding if it involves existing "lines" of
privately developed embryonic stem cells. Others could not, but the harvesting of
stem cells from human embryos can continue with private funding. Bush had
carefully chosen a middle ground between, as he put it, the good and the good.

This construct is, of course, nonsense. Bush has essentially let
science policy be dictated by fundamentalist Protestant views about when life
begins. (The Catholic hierarchy, which consistently opposes trifling with embryos
under whatever auspices, lent cover to Bush's middle-ground charade by helpfully
opposing his policy.)

The policy is anything but coherent, either as ethics or as science. If
harvesting of embryonic stem cells is morally dubious, why should it be
prohibited with federal funding but allowed in private laboratories? And why
should new colonies of stem cells be suspect but existing ones be acceptable?
Bush's spurious distinction recalls thousands of years of cynically corrupt
theological expediency--sales of indulgences, deals between popes and kings--and
it reminds us why preachers should be kept far away from the laboratory to begin
with.

Let's not forget: Though he has obfuscated his position and winked at the
religious right, Bush declined the opportunity to say that a woman should be
denied the right to terminate a pregnancy. So if an embryo can be destroyed at
will for no specified reason, why on earth object to destroying embryos in the
course of scientific research?

There are plenty of ethical questions to address, but Bush ducked them. Should
we use surplus embryos discarded from fertility clinics but not those created
explicitly for their stem cells? Should we breed embryonic clones for spare parts
for a particular individual? What about whole-human clones? But this is not the
moral realm Bush inhabits. His policy simply allows private industry to continue
developing embryos willy-nilly--activity that Bush considers too morally suspect
to get public funds. How touchingly Republican that Bush would give corporate
industry an indulgence that he denies to socially funded activity. If the market
does it, then by definition it must be okay.

Bush's approach sidesteps and thereby aggravates a more
serious threat to biomedical progress. The real question is: Which scientific
advances shall be publicly funded, publicly regulated, and left in the public
domain, and which shall be private and proprietary? This issue--and not the
theological questions about when embryonic life begins--is the truly difficult
policy question crying out for resolution.

By disdaining public science in favor of pandering to the religious
right, Bush tacitly resolves the question in favor of the private biotech
industry. In effect, the religious right is a stalking horse for companies like
Geron, which no longer need to fear competition from the National Institutes of
Health. After all, if most funding must proceed privately, then the government
will have little leverage over who shall gain access to the products of the
research and on what terms. Private stem cell colonies will be available only
based on licenses from the patent holder. Scientists at the University of
Wisconsin, which has a lucrative deal with Geron, are now suing their university
to pursue access to the research products.

As science policy, Bush's approach makes stem cell research a more extreme
version of the path taken by pharmaceutical research. Instead of broad access and
collaboration in the scientific community, stem cell breakthroughs will be
proprietary products. So when the miracle cures come, they will be available only
at astronomical costs to a narrow public, the science will be needlessly
balkanized, and the Medicare budget will take another beating. When Bush
announced his policy, most scientists were aghast, but executives of Geron were
cheering.

In a stroke, Bush has managed to alienate many religious conservatives as well
as most scientists. But that hardly means that his policy adds up to a sensible
middle ground. One way or another, this use of embryonic stem cells will
continue--if not in the United States, then overseas. And if the right persists
with efforts to ban such research outright, it will only drive stem cell research
offshore all the faster, to the detriment of U.S. science.

Though Bush did it pretty effectively in the campaign, it's hard to obfuscate
the issue of reproductive choice. One either favors restricting a woman's right
to choose or does not. But the issue of human-embryo cloning and science policy
is much easier to fuzz up, because there are genuinely difficult policy questions
involving moral quandaries and subtle issues of intellectual-property law as well
as public science versus proprietary science. And these questions come bundled
with technical concepts that few lay people easily grasp.

We need to see Bush's policy for what it is--a pure sop to the fundamentalist
right. This republic, with its legions of true believers, has done best when it
followed Jefferson's strict separation of private belief and public business.
Bush's stoking of the fundamentalist brimstone with his "faith-based" and
"pro-life" pandering is pure mischief. It's bad enough to allow a fanatic
minority to dictate its views on reproductive rights. It's even worse to let
private religious dogmas restrict research that could relieve suffering, enrich
health, and extend life.

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