After months of deriding the president as an idiot, Democrats have to face the fact
that he is at the very least an idiot savant — and just possibly a genius.
The final proof is The Great Stem Cell Compromise. "This is way beyond politics," said George W. Bush while pondering his verdict. What's more, he told the nation, he had found a solution to please everyone. His plan will at once "lead to breakthrough therapies and cures" and do so "without crossing a fundamental moral line."
In fact, everything Mr. Bush said is false. His decision was completely about politics. It will slow the progress to breakthrough therapies and cures. It did force the pro-life movement he ostensibly endorses to cross a fundamental moral line. And yet the politics were so brilliantly handled — and exquisitely timed, for the August dog days — that few vacationing Americans bothered to examine the fine print, which didn't arrive until the final seconds of an 11- minute speech. Few have noticed, at least not yet, that the only certain beneficiary of this compromise is George W. Bush.
Denigrated as a lightweight and a slacker, he seized on the stem cell debate to transform his image into that of our philosopher king — grappling mightily with the science and ethics of an issue he and his handlers hyped as "one of the most profound of our time" — even as he induced religious-right political leaders to sell out their principles and sent Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and juvenile diabetes patients to the back of the medical research bus. As an act of self-serving political Houdinism, this is a feat worthy of Mr. Bush's predecessor, another master at buying time when caught in a political corner with no apparent way out.
If you spend a week talking to scientists actively involved with stem cells, which I did, the most enthusiasm you can find for Mr. Bush's compromise is lukewarm. "It could have been better, it could have been worse," as Sloan Kettering's Harold Varmus, the former head of the National Institutes of Health, puts it. Jerome Groopman, a Harvard Medical School professor who has worked on bone marrow stem cells, calls the president's decision "unprecedented" in the way "it ignores the fundamental needs and process of experimental medicine" by "holding research hostage to private companies" that own many of the 60 stem cell lines that Mr. Bush has approved for federal study. "No company has the kind of resources that can match the N.I.H. for the kind of free scientific inquiry that might bear fruit," says Dr. Groopman. Besides, he adds: "There isn't a soul alive who can testify that these 60 lines can give us what we need. The success of science depends on a string of failures, and no one can work at a laboratory bench with his hands shackled behind him."
"Where are those lines? Are they any good? Are they available?" asks Doug Melton, a leading stem cell scientist who had a 45-minute meeting with the president, Karl Rove and other political operatives in July. It's not enough, Dr. Melton says, "to say there are cells at Singapore at this phone number and go get them." Since there has been no firsthand scientific investigation of the quality of these far-flung lines, some of them could prove stale, unstable or insufficiently varied for research purposes.
But even if by some miracle they're all just what the doctors ordered, Dr. Melton fears delays of many months for all the lawyering required to sort out the intellectual property rights of the Bush-blessed cells before their private owners ("who have now been given a mini- monopoly") will transfer them to academic researchers. It was only four days after Mr. Bush's speech that the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, allied with the pioneering stem cell scientist James Thomson, sued its biotech partner, the Geron Corporation, over who controls which commercial rights. Evan Snyder, another prominent stem cell researcher at Harvard, fears that some owners of Bush-approved stem cells could restrict their intellectual property as zealously as "Coca-Cola and its secret formula or a computer company that won't give out the secrets of its latest chip."
Dr. Snyder also points out that the administration is "scientifically naïve," since some of its approved cells may have been extracted by already outdated mid- 1990's technology. "We can now get stem cell lines that are more efficacious and heartier," he says. "Would we fight new infections only with penicillin and sulfa and not the new antibiotics?" He also worries about a potential brain drain beyond the well-publicized decision by Dr. Roger Pedersen of the University of California to decamp to Cambridge University in pursuit of scientific freedom. It's possible that "new intellects and talents we'd like to see jump into the game" will go into other fields, given the roadblocks to stem cell work.
As if these barriers to the expeditious pursuit of life-and-death research weren't enough, the Bush administration has also yet to appoint its new director of the N.I.H. — the person needed to run all the bureaucratic and legal gantlets separating researchers from the approved stem cell lines. Will that appointee have to pass an ideological litmus test, and if so, will there be a lengthy Senate confirmation fight?
The president's new council on stem cells, headed by the bioethicist Leon Kass, may add further confusion and delays. No one seems to know its precise role, including the White House, which has yet to delineate any of its specific stem cell duties. If the panel's point is to rule on the ethical questions, didn't the president already do that? If it's to add another layer of guidelines as to how the research can proceed, "it could add another year to the process," says Harold Varmus.
Yet if scientists — not to mention patients desperately hoping for stem-cell therapies — got at best a half-loaf out of the Bush compromise, the anti-abortion absolutists got snookered.
The pro-life cause (and the Republican platform that parrots it) has staked its moral rectitude on the belief that life begins at conception. As Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said in July, "We're opposed to federal funding of research if it kills embryos, whether the killing took place yesterday or today."
Well, that was yesterday. By the time the president gave his go-ahead for federal funds to underwrite research on previously killed embryos, the White House had smartly romanced the National Right to Life Committee to the point where it declared itself "delighted" with the news. A few spoilsports who disagreed with this retreat — such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — were drowned out and marginalized by pro-life politicos like James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Jerry Falwell, who also enthusiastically endorsed the Bush speech. Pat Robertson went so far as to dismiss "ethical dilemmas" as secondary to the "practical reality" of a "very useful science."
Pro-choicers should welcome all these former pro-lifers into the fold. Their position — that it's O.K. to sacrifice embryos to the greater good of potentially ending the suffering of living juvenile diabetes and Alzheimer's patients — is at one with the pro-choice view that in pregnancy embryos sometimes must be sacrificed for the health of the mother.
What gives the scientists I spoke with some guarded hope despite the strictures placed on their work by the president's policy is that Mr. Bush moved just enough to convince them that the policy isn't permanent. Though Mr. Bush said he wouldn't change his mind, they predict that if the 60 stem cell lines aren't accessible or scientifically useful, the political pressure from patients' advocacy groups and Congress will force inevitable concessions from the White House. And now they have the added boon that not just pro-life senators like Orrin Hatch and Bill Frist but also the nation's loudest pro-life leaders will be in the president's pocket when he next capitulates.
Thanks to the sudden national fixation on stem cells, the entire country
now knows that there are between 100,000 and 200,000 frozen embryos currently
in storage at fertilization clinics, most of them slated to be killed anyway,
most of them with greater potential for saving lives than becoming lives.
As Christopher Reeve has noted, long before anyone had heard of stem cells
there was never any "outrage that these unwanted fertilized embryos are
being thrown in the garbage." When Mr. Bush inevitably finds another ingenious
"compromise" to make more of them available to medical research, there
won't be outrage either — only votes.