On July 19, 2006 days, George W. Bush used his veto power for the first time. The issue on which he finally took out his pen to thwart the excesses of Congress was important: embryonic stem cell research. After the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have mandated federal funding of stem cell research – which requires the killing of human embryos – by a 235-193 vote (and which the Senate had passed the day before by a vote of 63-37), the president vetoed the law. Neither house of Congress will vote to override the veto.
As good as Bush action was, it should be put into context. Embryonic stem cell research is not illegal in the United States. There is no law or regulation outlawing it and many states fund this destructive research. Bush drew a line which has long existed, but which the majority in Congress, misled about the utility of omnipotent stem cells derived from destroyed human embryos, wanted to extinguish: no federal government funds for a (at best) controversial and (worse) immoral form of research.
Though we would like to see embryonic stem cell research prohibited, we applaud Bush for his pro-life witness in condemning ESCR in very strong (although not unequivocal) terms. In the first paragraph of the speech in which he announced his veto, Bush said: In this new era, our challenge is to harness the power of science to ease human suffering, without sanctioning the practices that violate the dignity of human life. He went further, reminding Americans that embryonic stem cells come from human embryos that are destroyed for their cells. Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value.
Sadly, Bush stands behind his 2001 policy, which permitted federal research funds to be used for 21 existing stem cell lines that are being replicated and used in experiments. What about the inherent dignity and matchless value of the embryonic children destroyed in that research? Although the lines were already in existence (the Congressional bill would have allowed for the creation of new, limitless lines of embryonic stem cells), Bush line that such research is permissible because the the life and death decision had already been made is unconvincing and inconsistent. It is also bitterly disappointing, considering that the words he uses to defend the sanctity of human life (when he wants to) are powerful.
Yet, for all the shortcomings of Bush stem cell research policy (which are obvious political compromises), the president half-measures are far superior to what we have in Canada, where the Canadian Institutes of Health Research regulates stem cell research, completely indifferent to the moral status of human life at the embryonic stage. Where Bush puts his rhetorical weight solidly behind adult and somatic stem cell research derived from ethical sources (umbilical cord blood, skin cells, bone marrow, etc.), and tries to limit the scope of ESCR by preventing federal funding of it, no Canadian political leader will stand up for the sanctity of human life, suggest that embryonic human beings have any value whatsoever or limit the harm done by the CIHR. President Bush has shown remarkable leadership, making a case for ethical research and the sanctity of human life. We will not hold our breath waiting for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to exercise similar leadership.