Bush’s stem cell decision shows awe, gratitude for life

  • George Will / Washington Post columnist
  • Tuesday, August 14, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

"Americans know this is not the decision that the science community needs to go forward full force."

—Rep. Richard Gephardt

WASHINGTON — President Bush’s stem cell decision, both the substance of it and the manner of his making it, changes American politics profoundly. It is now clearer than ever that America’s two parties represent a cultural cleavage much deeper and more dramatic than the traditional, indeed banal party divisions about taxes and spending and the like. The parties represent different sensibilities — different stances toward nature, including human nature. Let it never again be said that contemporary politics is uninteresting.

It is indicative that Bush, who has been parsimonious of presidential rhetoric, used his first nationally televised address — his first post-Inaugural claim on the nation’s attention — to discuss (in the words of Leon Kass) "the human future."

Bush’s decision has been characterized, even by his aides, as a "compromise." However, Kass, the scientist and philosopher who is Bush’s choice to head a commission on biomedical ethics, suggests that "solution" is a more apposite description.

Bush did not try to split the unsplittable difference about the use, including the production, of embryos — unquestionably living entities, unquestionably of the human species — as resources for research. Rather, Bush said cells will be used only "where the life-and-death decision has already been made." This has been widely mischaracterized as a "middle course." Midway between what and what? Actually, it is strict fidelity to his campaign promise that there would be no federal funding for research "that involves destroying living human embryos."

Bush’s decision is that such destructions are wrong, but that it is acceptable to seek benefits from the 60 or so "lines" of stem cells that have resulted from such wrongs. Is this coherent? It is if you hold, reasonably, that one can materially participate in a wrong by accepting a benefit from it if, but only if, three conditions obtain: One must not cooperate with the wrong, one must not enable the wrong, and one must not provide inducements for the wrong.

Bush’s position is so measured and principled that his critics are in danger of embracing extremism. All extremists share an attribute: they elevate a single value over all others. Indeed, the defining attribute of fanaticism is an insistence on acting as though one consideration — liberty, equality, fraternity, whatever — trumps all others. See the statement by Richard Gephardt, above.

Extremists are, in the phrase of the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt, "terrible simplifiers." Gephardt’s statement suggests that questions surrounding embryonic stem cell research, and implicitly all questions of biomedical ethics, are actually quite simple. Gephardt’s statement, which may be becoming part of the Democratic Party’s catechism, expresses the "science uber alles" school of thought. And "science" really is shorthand for anything that conduces to the material well-being of those wielding the power of choice. This categorical imperative to go "full force," sometimes called the "technological imperative," is often confused with compassion.

Kass’ voice is different:

"Because we belong to the nature we study and seek to control, our power over nature eventually means power also over ourselves. We are not only agents but also and increasingly patients of our scientific project for the mastery of nature. Our self-conception, if not also our very being, lies upon the table science — biology, medicine, psychology — has prepared. How shall we treat this patient? What standards of health and human flourishing shall guide our self-manipulations?"

In making his decision about embryonic stem cell research, Bush, who throughout his public life has been the object of unrelenting condescension from his critics, sought counsel from an array of remarkably learned thinkers, and crafted a solution so rigorous and sophisticated that the condescenders still do not fathom it. And he has leavened the nation’s thinking by asking Kass to organize what are certain to be increasingly complex and momentous debates about biomedical ethics.

At the dawn of the atomic age, Albert Einstein said that the world had more to fear from bad politics than from bad physics. At this dawning of a new age of biomedical possibilities, both enticing and ominous, good politics has prevailed. That is, the nation’s foremost political person has begun the task of defining humane circumscriptions of biological sciences that can be badly used.

By opting for prudence — for respect, awe and gratitude for life’s mysteriousness — against the "full force" scientific project, Bush has understood this Kass axiom: "We stand most upright when we gladly bow our heads."

George Will can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200.

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