National Affairs Rory Leishman

From a pro-life perspective, President George W. Bush may have been less than perfect, but in comparison to his successor, he is looking ever better.

Bush devotes an entire chapter of his compelling memoir Decision Points to the controversial decision he announced in a televised address on Aug. 9, 2001, to authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research using only existing stem cell lines. Bush recalls that he did not arrive at this position easily. While mindful of his campaign promise not to support the use of taxpayer funds to “underwrite research that involves the destruction of live human embryos,” he read extensively about the issues involved in embryonic stem cell research and consulted widely with experts holding widely varying views on the subject.

After several months of listening and reflecting, Bush arrived at a  “defining moment” in his decision-making when he talked to Leon Kass, the distinguished pro-life physician and philosopher at the University of Chicago. Bush writes: “I shared an idea: What if I authorized federal funding for embryonic stem cell research – but solely for existing stem cell lines? The embryos used to create those lines had been destroyed. There was no way to get them back. It seemed logical to let scientists use them to pursue treatments that could save other lives.”

Kass concurred with this proposal, subject, says Bush, on two conditions: “I must reaffirm the moral principle that had been violated – in this case, the dignity of human life. And I must make clear that federal funds would not be used in the further destruction of embryos. So long as I did both, he said, the policy would pass the ethical test. ‘If you fund research on lines that have already been developed,’ he said, ‘you are not complicit in their destruction.’”

Other pro-lifers emphatically disagreed. Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the United States Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounced Bush’s decision to fund embryonic stem cell research using existing lines as “morally unacceptable.” Fiorenza observed that thanks to Bush’s policy: “The federal government, for the first time in history, will support research that relies on the destruction of some defenseless human beings for possible benefit to others.”

Bush also came under sustained attack from the opposite direction. Mario Cuomo, a reputedly erudite intellectual who formerly served as the Democratic governor of New York, took the view that Bush should have authorized federal funding for embryonic stem cell research without any restriction to existing stem cell lines. In a typically contemptuous attack, Cuomo said the Bush “will have to provide more than sincere religiosity to prove human life exists as early as fertilization.”

Bush, of course, would have agreed on this point, because he, unlike Cuomo, understood that it is not just a religious belief, but a well-established scientific fact that human life begins when an oocyte (egg) is fertilized by a sperm.

Regardless, Cuomo also charged that in consistency with his pro-life stance, Bush should have introduced legislation to ban private as well as public funding for research on embryonic stem cells. True enough, but as Cuomo well knew, there was no chance that the Congress would approve such legislation.

As it was, Bush twice had to veto legislative attempts to overturn even his limited executive order restricting federal funding to existing embryonic stem cell lines.
Meanwhile, President Barrack Obama, like his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, has authorized federal funding for research on all embryonic stem cells — a policy that sanctions the deliberate killing of human beings for medical research.
Wesley J. Smith is a pro-lifer who still sides with Bush and Kass on restricting funding for research on embryonic stem cells to existing lines. In a recent contribution to First Things, Smith wrote: “I thought then, and think now, that the policy was a tremendous contribution because it kept an intense international ethical focus on the importance of human life – even at the embryonic stage.”

Pro-lifers are deeply indebted to George W. Bush. We should hope and pray that the United States and Canada will soon have another leader no less dedicated than he to upholding the sanctity of human life from fertilization to natural death.