Bush's Mistake on Stem Cells
Published on Sunday, August 12, 2001 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
George W Bush's America
Bush's Mistake on Stem Cells
by Steve Miles
President Bush labored mightily to make juggling antiabortion votes with health industry lobbyists look like balancing science and ethics. His stem cell policy has something to make everyone unhappy.

Bush also showed that he won't be the science president. Arsenic in water: The data is in; don't act on it. Global warming: The data is suggestive; think about it. "Star wars": The tests failed; implement it. Stem cells: The research is promising but not good enough; slow it down.

The president's rules for federal dollars for research go like this: No for cloning humans. (A good, but easy call.) Yes for work on stem cells from adults, placentas and umbilical cord. (These do not cause loss of human life -- never mind that these are the cells people are trying to trick into cloning.) Yes for research on stem cells that already are growing in laboratories. Yes to an oversight committee headed by a scholar who is opposed to stem cell research.

And then the surprise. The president rejected the views of a large majority in the Senate, his health senator (Bill Frist of Tennessee), Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, former First Lady Nancy Reagan and actor Christopher Reeves. They all favored limited research on cells taken from fertilized and dividing cells produced during in-vitro fertilization that will be discarded.

Government-imposed genetics morality has a sad history. "Exhibit A" is Nazi race hygiene, a pseudoscience that provided temporary solace to a society that murdered Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and persons with disabilities and chronic disease.

Bush is pursuing "Exhibit B": the Soviet Union. It labeled Darwin's "survival of the fittest" evolution as immoral capitalism.

The Soviet genetic dogma, Lysenkoism, said that if you tried very hard to be tall, that your body could make tall-stuff that you would pass along to your kids. If you lived near other tall people, their stuff would help you. In other words, the government could make you a better person.

This genetics by perfection of the state was costly. The Soviets lost a billion rubles planting weak crops in clusters around strong ones to be reeducated. Genetics education was wrecked. The discovery of DNA was censored. Scientists who objected went to Europe or Siberia.

The president's moral code will retard science, be costly, and drive talented scientists to Europe.

Basic research at universities creates the foundation for future science. Universities cannot physically comply with Bush's firewall between federal and private stem cell research. European universities will perform the research for the health technologies of 2050.

With universities sidelined, corporations will patent information, like the genetic code, that should be in the public domain. Health care products will be more costly.

Some of our best genetic scientists will go to Europe, depriving us of teachers, researchers and valuable patents for the next generation of health science.

Does anyone believe that we will not buy the medical fruits of this research from Europe when it becomes available? It will probably delay some lifesaving technologies, perhaps a safe supply of blood, or a new transplant to cure diabetes, or ways to repair torn nerves or skin. It does not resolve the moral issue.

Bush said that he agonized over whether these early embryos were human life -- but he did not give an answer. Private research without federal rules will continue.

The president could have avoided this issue. Rules were in place. For political reasons, he offered to revisit them. Now, he has forged a costly and unstable solution that will have to be revisited and revised.

This is a mess of his making. Congress will probably decide to override.

Steven Miles, of Minneapolis, is a physician at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics.

© Copyright 2001 Star Tribune