Gingrich’s Stem-Cell History

by Ramesh Ponnuru

In 2001, President Bush was under enormous pressure to allow federal funding for stem-cell research that involved the destruction of human embryos. Many Republicans in Congress favored the funding, and so, reportedly, did various White House aides and Cabinet secretaries. Among those Republicans who added to the calls for funding was former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

On July 10, 2001, talking to Paula Zahn on Fox News, he said,

My hope is that [President Bush] will draw a sharp distinction between research on fetuses, which I think would be abhorrent and anti-human, and research on cells that are in fertility clinics that have never been in anyone’s body, in terms of being — becoming a person, and which, frankly, are currently unregulated and will disappear. And I think that’s a different kind of question. These are not prehuman cells in the sense they’re going to be implanted. . . . I have a 100 percent pro-life voting record, but I’ve always drawn a distinction at implantation. And I think there’s a real difference in the two kinds of cells. I notice that former senator Connie Mack, who is himself is a Catholic, takes the same position. And I think people who’ve looked at this issue can honorably disagree. But for many of us, there’s a very, very real distinction between doing something with an unborn child, a fetus that is implanted, and doing something with cells in a fertility clinic that are otherwise going to be destroyed.

Nine days later, speaking to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, Gingrich said,

I think that there are ways to have appreciation for life, to recognize the sanctity of life, but nonetheless to look at fertility clinics where there are cells that are sitting there that are not going to be used to create life. They literally today, they’re unregulated, they can be thrown away. And I think the president, I hope the president, will find a way to agree that there ought to be federally funded research. Every major disease group in this country is passionately hoping that the president will find a way to open the door to science. And I think when you at the potential that we’re told by scientist after scientist exists in looking at these cells, that it is absolutely worth our doing. And it enhances and enriches life, I think. It doesn’t diminish it.

In a 2006 interview with Discover, Gingrich said that the federal government should not fund research on “stem cells from abortion.” Asked about research involving embryos from fertility clinics, he said, “I think the federal government needs to set an example by making sure that when it is the funding source for such research, it is subject to serious ethical guidelines” — which was the line taken by advocates of expanded funding for embryo-destructive research at the time.

More recently, Gingrich has had, at the very least, a different rhetorical emphasis. He recently said that he was against “killing children” for stem-cell research and that adult stem cells were just as promising as embryonic stem cells. But that leaves several questions unanswered. Does he still favor federal funding of stem-cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos obtained from fertility clinics? Does he still believe these embryos are “prehuman”? Does he still believe that the right to life depends on implantation? And if he now thinks he was mistaken in the past, when and how did he come to this realization?