President Bush Misleads the Public about Stem Cell Research (October 12, 2004)
Long before the war on terrorism was a glimmer in Karl Rove’s eye, the Bush political machinery had seized upon stem cell research to galvanize its conservative base. On August 9, 2001, in his first national television prime time address, President George W. Bush said: “Embryonic stem cell research is at the leading edge of a series of moral hazards” and that “I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator”. As a result of these personal beliefs, the President decided to limit federally sponsored stem cell research only to “embryos that have already been destroyed”.
This stark choice was followed by aggressive lobbying at the United Nations by the Bush Administration to ban worldwide one of the two forms of embryonic stem cell research. In fact, the United States has co-sponsored a joint resolution with a number of Roman Catholic nationsto do just that. The U.S. Department of State’s website declares: “Cloning an embryo for the purpose of killing it for research or other uses is morally and ethically unacceptable.” Despite three years of backlash from a widespread majority of Americans, this policy is still pronounced as part of the “United States”Agenda at the United Nations.
With this series of actions, the hope for stem cell therapy for tens of millions of human sufferers in the United States and possibly around the world was put on hold for over three years – and counting. And another great Bush Divide has unfolded.
This article looks at the stem cell divide from a scientific, popular, legal, religious, and political point of view – and provides a unique perspective of what could be in store for America under the current manifestation of divisiveness upon which President Bush has banked his position as the most powerful person in the world. But before doing so, this paper provides background information and reviews the two basic types of embryonic stem cell development.
What are stem cells and what is stem cell therapy?
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can develop into more mature, specialized cells. Stem cells are found in embryos during their first few days of development, in fetal tissue, and more rarely, in some adult organs. Scientists work with both embryonic and adult stem cells, but embryonic stem cells are the more promising because they are “pluripotent,” meaning that they have the potential to differentiate into tissue of almost any organ (brain, liver, heart, pancreas, etc.) of the human body. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are “multipotent” meaning that they generate just a few tissue types, and are difficult to extract and grow, and many tissues cannot be derived from adult stem cells.
Regenerative medicine, based on embryonic stem cell research, aims to use pluripotent stem cells to heal severe illnesses and injuries. The hope is that scientists can grow stem cells in laboratories to form specific tissues, such as brain, heart, lung, kidney or pancreatic tissue, which could then help repair damaged and diseased organs or provide alternative to organ transplants. Many of the illnesses that are targets of stem cell therapy have few or no treatment options, so millions of Americans are looking to stem cell research as a promising path to new, effective treatments.
How are embryonic stem cells derived?
There are two methods to development embryonic stem cells, namely, from 1) In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and/or 2) Human Theraputic Cloning, as shown below.
Approximately 400,000 stem cell lines currently exist from the IVF process, which is used by many couples to conceive children. When doctors match sperm and egg to create life outside the womb, they usually produce more embryos than are planted in the mother. Once a couple successfully has children, the additional embryos remain frozen in laboratories. The vast majority of these embryos will eventually be discarded.
The second method to derive stem cells also takes place outside of the womb. The nucleus of the cell from a patient is inserted into the egg of a donor after the egg’s nucleus has been removed. The potential with this method is that rejection of the implanted stem cells will be reduced and that unwanted tumors will be avoided.
What do research scientists say?
The National Institute of Health says: “Perhaps the most important potential application of human stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cell-based therapies. Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace ailing or destroyed tissue, but the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis”.
“The science of stem cell application is very young,” says Stanimir Vuk-Pavlovic, Ph.D., Director, Stem Cell Laboratory, Mayo Clinic Cancer Center at Rochester, Minnesota. “Much more research must be done before we fully understand the power of stem cells, but the potential for the future is exciting.”
In January 2002, a panel set up by the National Academies of Science concluded that the scientific and medical considerations that justify a ban on human reproductive cloning do not apply to nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells. With biomedical knowledge advancing rapidly and the considerable potential for developing new medical therapies to treat life-threatening diseases, the panel supported the conclusion of a previous National Academies’ report — Stem Cells and the Future of Regenerative Medicine— that recommends that biomedical research using nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells be permitted.
In June 2004, 142 patient groups, universities and scientific societies sent a letter to the White House urging the President to expand his stem cell policy, which they asserted severely curtails embryonic stem cell research and hinders potential treatments and cures. Included in these groups were: 1) American Association of Cancer Research, 2) American Diabetes Association, 3) the Arthritis Foundation, 4) the Association of American Medical Colleges, 5) Children’s Hospital Boston, and 6) over twenty major universities including Duke University Medical Center and the University of Colorado.
What does the public think about embryonic stem cell research?
Nine leading nationwide pollsters recently published their findings of the public's view of stem cell research. Their findings show that a wide majority of Americans support embryonic stem cell research, including a majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. The only sub-group where a majority opposes embryonic stem cell research is composed of highly religious Christians, the same group that also generally opposes abortion.
What does U.S. law say?
The Constitution does not address when a fetus becomes a person or when life begins, nor does any Court seek to speculate on this question – other than to note that those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology have been unable to arrive at any consensus.
More revealing is how common law addressed this issue over the ages in the context of abortion. It is undisputed that at common law, abortion performed before “quickening” – the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, appearing usually from the 16th to the 18th week of pregnancy – was not an indictable offense. The absence of a common-law crime for pre-quickening abortion appears to have developed from a confluence of earlier philosophical, theological, and civil and canon law concepts of when life begins. These disciplines variously approached the question in terms of the point at which the embryo or fetus became “formed” or recognizably human, or in terms of when a “person” came into being, that is, infused with a “soul” or “animated.” A loose consensus evolved in early English law that these events occurred at some point between conception and live birth. Although Christian theology and the canon law came to fix the point of animation at 40 days for a male and 80 days for a female, a view that persisted until the 19th century, there was otherwise little agreement about the precise time of formation or animation. Nonetheless, the significance of quickening was echoed by later common-law scholars and found its way into the received common law in this country.
When the U.S. Constitution was adopted, and throughout the major portion of the 19th century, there was no stated or practiced belief that life began at conception in the context of abortion, or otherwise. Even later, at the height of anti-abortion state legislation in the late 1800’s, the law continued to treat less punitively an abortion procured in early pregnancy.
More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973), in reviewing a Texas anti-abortion statute, noted that: “There has always been strong support for the view that life does not begin until live birth”, and found that “With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interests in potential life, the “compelling” point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside of the mother’s womb”.
As such, we see that there is no support in any law in the United States – currently and throughout its history — that life begins at conception.
An equally important legal principle in the stem cell debate is the Constitutional separation between state and religion. The Founding Fathers and the states that ratified the Constitution said, “no religious test shall ever be required” (U.S. Constitution, Article 6, Clause 3). In America, religion is not to be imposed by law or government upon anyone. Religious belief and support is none of the government’s business; it is a matter for individuals, families, churches, and religion organizations, and is to be freely exercised.
One of the objectives of the Constitution is to keep the majority from imposing its religion by force of law upon the minority. For example, in America today there are more Muslims than Presbyterians and more Buddhists than Episcopalians.
The U.S Supreme Court, in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971, established the three part test for determining if an action of government violates First Amendment’s separation of church and state: 1) the government action must have a secular purpose; 2) its primary purpose must not be to inhibit or to advance religion; 3) there must be no excessive entanglement between government and religion.
Clearly the Bush policy on stem cells doesn’t pass the Constitutionally-based test of excessive entanglement between government and religion, given its stated rationale is based on a definition of life at conception as “a sacred gift of our Creator”.
The final legal issue regarding Bush’s stem cell policy is the Administration’s Joint Resolution to the United Nations that human therapeutic cloning be banned worldwide.
Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution grants power to the President to make treaties with the “advice and consent” of two thirds of the Senate. However, throughout U.S. history, the President has also made “international agreements” through congressional-executive agreements that are ratified with only a majority from both houses of Congress, or sole executive agreements made by the President alone.
The negotiation, entry into, and implementation of international agreements implicates the President’s Article II authority to negotiate treaties and international agreements and to conduct foreign affairs (seeUnited States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 319 (1936)) and Congress’ express power to impose duties and tariffs and to regulate foreign commerce (U.S. Constitution, Art. I, § 8, cls.1, 3). Because of Congress’ express power in the area of foreign commerce, the President may not impose, reduce, or effect any other change in international commerce agreements through an executive agreement unless he has been delegated the authority to do so by Congress. SeeUnited States v. Yoshida Int’l Inc., 526 F.2d 560, 572 (C.C.P.A. 1975) (“no undelegated power to regulate commerce, or to set tariffs, inheres in the Presidency”).
Thus, with stem cell research coming under commerce and not foreign affairs, the Bush policy advocating banning therapeutic human cloning requires approval of the U.S. Congress, which we will see below, it clearly does not have. Therefore, the Administration’s proposal to the United Nations on stem cell research is null and void – yet it remains a legal impediment which chills private and public sector investment in stem cell research.
What do the major religions say?
In the Hebrew Scriptures that make up the Old Testament, Adam is not granted a “living soul” until God has “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Genesis 2:7.This has been interpreted to indicate that Adam is not granted humanness until his first breath. Thus an infant is not a human being until it first breathes, and the argument for potential life is circumvented because embryos have not yet been granted humanness in the form of a living soul. The cell used in stem cell research is not yet a human and so this procedure is allowable under this interpretation of the Scriptures. Similarly, the view that life does not begin until live birth appears to be the predominant, though not the unanimous, attitude of the Jewish faith.
Pope John Paul II has cautioned that medical science can be “used to the detriment of human life” when it “allows itself to be led to intervene against the plan of the Creator in the life of the family or to be taken by the temptation to the manipulation of human life, and when it loses sight of its authentic direction of purpose toward the person who is most unfortunate and most sick.”
The Pope is also of the opinion that potential life in the form of single or multi-cell embryos is deserving of the same rights as fully developed human beings. The Pope and, by extension, the Roman Catholic faith feel that once conception occurs no one has the right to destroy a life that God has created.
Not all Christian religions share this view. The Jewish view that life does not begin until live birth may be taken to represent also the position of a large segment of the Protestant community. For example, organized Protestant groups that have taken a formal position on the abortion issue over the years have generally regarded abortion as a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family.
Muslim scholars agree that the fetus becomes a human being after 120 days of conception. This is largely based on the Hadith:
The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Each of you is constituted in your mother’s womb for forty days as a nutfah, then it becomes an ‘alaqah for an equal period, then a mudghah for another equal period, then the angel is sent and he breathes the soul into it.”
For Muslims, the debates that drive Catholic and Evangelical concerns are not pertinent. Ensoulment, the moment at which a fetus receives a soul, according to the Qur’an and sunnah (way of the Prophet Mohammad), does not occur until the fourth month of pregnancy. Thus, the use of embryonic stem cells, in itself, does not violate Islamic religion. There can be no question as to legality since the embryo is not a person. Nonetheless, the question of whether the creation of an embryo by a husband and wife specifically for the purpose of creating stem cells for the medical treatment of the couple or their children, or other relatives, should be prohibited, remains debated on other grounds in Muslim circles.
Although Buddhist monks and nuns greatly value the principle of “non-harming” any sentient beings, an astonishingly liberal attitude toward stem cell research and human cloning has emerged in Buddhist cultures, including those in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. It is interesting to note that stem cell research is prominent and abortion loosely regulated in countries with considerable Buddhist influence.
According to the early Buddhist scriptures, new human life begins at conception. But many Buddhist lay people in these countries seem to feel that the Vinaya (early rules for conduct for monks and nuns), where this strict view is espoused, may no longer be applicable in the strictest sense. As in most religions, patterns of conduct, as well as the interpretation of the early scriptures, undergo significant changes. While many Buddhists in the Western countries view any destruction of embryonic life as wrong — regardless of the possibility that a cure for severe diseases like Alzheimer’s or critical spinal cord injuries might be found in a distant future — a considerable number of Asian Buddhists come to a more permissive conclusion.
First of all, Buddhists are not inclined to see a man-made creation as something competing with a “good” nature. There is a very positive attitude toward changing nature’s course if it enhances the welfare of all living beings, and more so if it allows medical advancements. Since in some Asian countries suffering caused by severe diseases is a part of everyday life, some Buddhists tend to argue in favor of possible cures, and many are quite open to prenatal diagnosis of inherited diseases in order to prevent further suffering. But they also argue for a better allocation of current therapies at hand, and do not subscribe to research that will only help an elite rich group that can afford high-priced treatment.
Second, Buddhist ethics are not principles to be followed as law. They are not designed as expressions of indisputable human rights or as a consequence of dignity inherent in every human being. Ethics are much more a matter of personal choice; principles like the one of “non-harming” should be followed as guidelines, and in extraordinary circumstances need not be applied in the strictest sense.
Lastly, the circumstances can be evaluated on a grade. The seriousness of killing a human being, therefore, must be considered with additional criteria. The less complex a being (in size, development and sensory abilities), the less positive karma that being has assembled in life. On the other hand, the better the intentions of the one who takes the life of a being, the better the outcome for the greatest number of suffering human beings, the more it is permissible.
According to the Hindus, life begins at conception and Hindus respect the sanctity of life. Hindus also recognize that life and death go together, and cannot be separated from each other. Hindus believe that consciously destroying one’s own life or somebody else’s is bad karma — unless it is done in extraordinary, unavoidable circumstances, and always for greater good.
For example, in Hindu mythology, there is the story of Dadhichi, the sage whose bones were sought by the gods to eliminate a demon. The sage gladly agreed, for the demon had to be destroyed for the good of the world. Far from characterizing Dadhichi’s act as suicide and condemning it, the Hindu tradition glorifies him and holds his sacrifice for greater good as a model for people everywhere.
So the question that Hindus may ask is: can the destruction of the embryos in stem cell research be considered as an extraordinary, unavoidable circumstance and an act done for greater good? If it is, the Hindu tradition will accept the research as ethically justified.
There can be other problems, though, that may test the limits of an ethical consideration. For instance, what would be the source for getting a fresh supply of stem cells? From the Hindu perspective, it will be acceptable if the donation is voluntary and for scientific knowledge, not if it is a transaction with commercial potential. Although there are religious ceremonies and rituals involved while cremating the dead, the donation of the body for medical research has been accepted by the Hindu tradition as ethical, even praiseworthy.
In summary, there is no agreement among the major religions that life begins at conception or that embryonic stem cell research is immoral, as declared by President Bush. In fact, President Bush’s policies clearly contravene the practices and beliefs of several major religions in the world, and as we shall see below, several countries as well.
What do U.S federal politicians say?
On June 4th of this year, 58 U.S. Senators wrote to the President and said: “We would very much like to work with you to modify the current embryonic stem cell research policy so that it provides this area of research the greatest opportunity to lead to the treatment and cures for which we are all hoping”.
On April 28th of this year, 206 members of the United States House of Representatives also wrote to the President, saying: “We write to urge you to expand the current federal policy concerning embryonic stem cell research”.
Given that the Bush Administration’s Joint Resolution to the United Nations to ban human therapeutic cloning for stem cell research does not have support of the U.S. Congress, it is without legal standing as described above. The policy also fails the Constitutional test for separation between state and church in this country.
What do the state politicians say?
Stem cell research has been addressed by 33 state legislatures considering 100 bills that alternately condemn, condone or fund embryonic stem cell research. California lawmakers passed a measure supporting embryonic stem cell research, and then former Governor Gray Davis signed the bill into law. The legislation will culminate in a California voter initiative in November that would, if approved, pump nearly $3 billion over 10 years into such research.
Earlier this year, New Jersey became the second state to pass legislation specifically outlawing reproductive cloning and promoting human embryonic stem cell research. Budget proposals for state funding are also under consideration.
What do other countries say?
Britain, Korea, France, Canada, Japan, Israel and South Africa have allowed scientists to proceed with human therapeutic cloning research.
In August of this year, Britain granted its first license for therapeutic human cloning. The British license went to Newcastle University researchers who hope eventually to create insulin-producing cells that could be transplanted into diabetics. British regulations allow the embryo to develop for no more than 14 days.
Earlier in the year, South Korean researchers at Hanyang University reported that they created human embryos in a test tube through cloning and extracted embryonic stem cells.
On the other hand, the following countries have submitted a Joint Resolution to the United Nations to ban therapeutic cloning research worldwide, based on an initial proposal by Costa Rica: Antigua and Barbuda, Benin, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gambia, Georgia, Grenada, Haiti, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Madagascar, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Portugal, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sierra Leone, Spain, Suriname, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America (on behalf of the Bush Administration only), Uzbekistan, Vanuatu and Zambia.
These mostly Roman Catholic or Christian countries seek to impose their religious view on the rest of world without any respect of other people’s beliefs or the potential benefits to these literally billions of people and their loved ones.
The Bush Divide revisited.
Based on his own words, it is clear that the President’s stem cell policy and its justification emanate from his religious convictions. And how learned are those convictions?
On November 20, 2003, in response to a question specifically asking him how he reacts to those who say the God of Islam is not the God of Christianity, Bush answered: “I do say that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every person. I also condition it by saying freedom is not America’s gift to the world. It’s much greater than that, of course. And I believe we worship the same God.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Commission, said that while he respects Bush, he believes the president is wrong.
“Like many other Americans I applaud the president as a man of deep religious faith who attempts to bring that faith conviction to bear on public policy issues,” Land told Baptist Press. “However, we should always remember that he is Commander-in-Chief, not theologian-in-chief. And when he says that he believes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, he is simply mistaken.”
While not theologian-in-chief, Bush has pushed for a religious divide – not only between his religious conservative base and the remainder of the country, and not only between science and religion, but between Christianity and other major religions in the World including Islam.
In studying Islam’s history, Bernard Lewis in the book What Went Wrong?(2002) notes that for centuries Islam represented the greatest military power on Earth, the foremost economic power in the world, and had achieved the highest level in human history in the arts and sciences. In fact, in most of the arts and sciences, Europe was dependent on the Islamic world. And then, suddenly, the relationship changed. The Muslims no longer sought out or even knew about the scientific and technological changes in the rest of world. The translation of foreign scientific and medical advances into Arabic became non-existent. Over time, the result in that part of the Middle East that shunned scientific advancement has been increasing poverty, despair and today, as we now know, an incubator for terrorism.
It is ironic that in Bush’s drive to segregate and solidify his support in the Red States, and with his self-professed desire to show the Middle East a better way through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the President has nonetheless pitted himself — and the United States — against one billion Muslins by trying to force the evangelical Christian view of stem cell research onto the rest of the world. President Bush has also put this country on a path to ignore and undercut scientific advancement – much like the Islamic nations after medieval times.
If stem cell research eventually bears the fruit hoped for by legions of scientific scholars, the political hammer of Karl Rove and George W. Bush on stem cell research will have long ceased being misguided and unlawful. Rather it will be viewed in the lens of history as dripping with the prolonged pain, blood and suffering of millions of the afflicted and their caregivers worldwide. By that time, should they themselves require the remedies derived from cell stem research, Karl Rove and George W. Bush undoubtedly will be first in the receiving line for its therapeutic value.
Today, we see that even when a powerful high-level conservative is inadvertently placed in a minority position – as with Vice President Cheney’s daughter public acknowledgement of her homosexuality – the powerful seek a common ground. For example, the Vice President has said: “People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to” and, as such, declares that “the states have made that fundamental decision of what constitutes a marriage.” This position clearly contradicts Bush’s divisive policy of seeking a U.S. constitutional ban on gay marriage.
So it should be clear that political leaders should not use their power to lead — for short-term political gain — with either divisiveness, disrespect of scientific advancement, or disregard of well-established legal principle. Rather our political leaders should seek fertile ground that we can share for the benefit of all humankind. As this paper amply demonstrates, President George W. Bush fails the public miserably regarding stem cell research – all for his own short-term political gain.
When this country’s leaders stray too far to the right or to the left – or lose a sense of decency and compassion for the unhealthy person in need of help — history teaches us that it’s time for a change. And this time, the U.S. Supreme Court will not intervene in the election results — for even a majority of justices have been appalled by Bush’s decisions to divide the country over the past three and half years through a political program composed of rules set by religious belief, fear incited by the threat of terrorism, smear of alternative points of view including former advisors, and a disregard for well-established laws such as the Geneva Conventions.