Five and one-half years into his presidency and George W. Bush finally found a reason to open his desk, blow the dust away and firmly grasp his never-been-used veto pen. With a quick flourish, quietly, almost in secret, President Bush placed his signature on his first-ever rejection of legislation from his Rubber Stamp Republican Congress. Was the legislation one of those evil liberal kobolds like socialized medical care, equal rights for homosexuals or campaign finance reform? Nay. It was to block a relaxation of Bush's ban on expanding embryonic stem cell research and the federal funding needed for such.
Now, I could go into the science of this issue; I've read quite a bit about at this point. I could discuss at length, for example, the difference between embryonic and adult stem cells and why the latter isn't always an acceptable substitute for the former. Or, I could talk about the moral implications, of the hope that expanded stem cell research may hold the key to unlocking cures for some of our deadliest illnesses. I could even give a nod to the anecdotes; the stories of notable stem cell research supporters like Nancy Reagan and the late Dana Reeve, who both watched their husbands suffer and die from diseases that embryonic stem cell research may one day conquer. I could discuss any or all of these things.
But I won't.
Because those are rational reasons to discuss embryonic stem cell research and Bush's decision clearly has nothing to do with rationality.
Instead, here is what I think is really the salient point that fully illustrates just what Bush considers important about embryonic stem cells (via Ezra Klein):
In case you feel I'm not giving enough credence to the moral argument against such research, allow me to quote Darksyde's excellent primer on the science, logistics, and future of stem cells:Embryonic Stem Cell lines come from material stored at fertility clinics which is already slated for destruction. Preventing these blastocysts from being used for research won't 'save' them. It simply means they'll be disposed of in a medical waste facility instead of being used to find cures for disease. The only reason to restrict federal approval of new lines is to appeal to a minority of extremist social conservatives and it comes at the cost of possibly delaying or denying treatment--and in some cases life itself--to millions of people.
Understand that graf, as no single point is more important in the moral argument: these blastocysts would be destroyed anyway. Not a single life is spared, or saved, in the barring of stem cell research. But in delaying possible cures and treatments, an untold number will be lost.
It sounds crazy, I know, but here's the Decider-in-Chief in his own words, via MSNBC:
"This bill would support the taking of innocent human life of the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our society needs to respect, so I vetoed it,".
I'm left to draw one of two conclusions. The first is that perhaps Bush really is just this ignorant. Maybe he really doesn't have even a passing familiarity with the medical science and doesn't actually realize from where researchers get embryonic stem cells. Perhaps this is just another example of how Bush is nothing more than an empty suit, a conservative name-brand pushed through by the Republicans back in 2000 so that they wouldn't have to worry about an actual leader muddying up their plans to forward the conservative movement.
I like that conclusion. It fits my biases, for one. I've long believed Bush was an ignorant lout and never intended by his Republican handlers to lead in any meaningful capacity. I believe he was always intended to be the head cheerleader for the conservative movement and head fundraiser for the Republican party. He was expected to make lots of empty-headed speeches and symbolic gestures but not really deal with anything important. He clearly has little grasp of the nuances of government and, especially in recent speeches, seems rather bored with being President. I wish this impression of the President explained his opposition to stem cell research. I don't believe it does, however.
What I do believe the truth is, and this is my other conclusion for his actions, is that Bush saw an opportunity to pad his legacy and shore up his religious fundamentalist base and took it. I still believe George W. Bush is hopelessly dense and uninformed, willfully so, but I recognize that he does possess a certain level of political cunning. Stem cell research, like any area of scientific research, is complex and requires diligent study to understand its complexities. In other words, it's not the sort of topic that graces the cover of People on a regular basis and, thus, is not terribly well understood by most Americans. It's just the kind of issue Bush and his handlers love to exploit on behalf of their theo-conservative base (see also "late-term abortions").
Bush knows the average Cult of Lifer has no workable knowledge about stem cell research, just as the average Creationist has little or no understanding of evolution. But the fact that an unborn human embryo, the form of life the Cult worships most devoutly, is involved allows Bush to give the appearance of a principled stand on behalf of "innocent human life". "Innocent", of course, is the key word. The Cult of Life believes "innocent" human lives, limited to those who've never been born, are sacred and thus deserve the full protection of the law. The Cult's thoughts on the sacredness of human life that has committed a crime, is the U.S.'s military enemy, believes in a religion other than evangelical Protestant Christianity (especially Islam), provides abortions and, now, that suffers from diseases that might one day see cures discovered via embryonic stem cell research, can really be summed up in two words: Fuck 'em!
Bush saw a golden opportunity to throw some red meat to his base, rejecting a bill that had actual bi-partisan support and was supported by a majority of Americans. The votes aren't there to overturn the veto, thanks to Cult of Life cardinals like Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, so stem cell research will have to wait still longer. Obviously Bush is no longer concerned about his electability, but he does seem concerned about his legacy. This will help bolster his reputation as a godly President, at least in the eyes of those for whom rolling back the Age of Enlightenment is considered godly.
So I guess this means congratulations are in order. Bravo, Cult of Life members! Your President has heard your pious pleas for a strong stance against science and reason. That whole Intelligent Design thing didn't work out so well, but you persevered. Sure, millions of people suffering from Parkinson's or Alzheimer's will wait that much longer for a cure (if they live that long), but at least a bunch of embryos that were destined for medical waste facilities will still get there. Your hard work, and your President's political machinations, have helped give that old demon, science, a good poke and have helped take away a little bit of hope from some non-sacred, non-innocent human life. After all, what nut could possibly believe that helping heal the sick has anything to do with Christianity?