President Bush is not to be envied. As Jonah Goldberg indicated yesterday on NRO, the issue of federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research is not a winnable one, in public-relations terms, for the president. Today, in fact, the president is deepening his predicament: He is at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to confer the Congressional Medal of Freedom (posthumously) on John Cardinal O’Connor. And it will get even worse later this month, when he goes to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II. Every single event of this kind builds the public perception that if the president decides to protect the human-life interests of embryos, he is “caving to Catholic pressure.”
The press, of course, is already buzzing. Not only on NRO, but across the entire media spectrum, the issue dominates: Newsweek cover stories, talking-heads shows, what have you. Bush’s allies and Cabinet secretaries are giving the president no aid, spouting off instead about how destroying embryos is the genuinely pro-life position. Meanwhile, there are a few stories here and there, mostly ignored or downplayed, about the promise of adult stem cells, which may be more flexible and are certainly more abundant, not requiring an endless stream of human lives sacrificed to research.
The press buzz has done a very good job of relaying the confusion that surrounds this issue. On Friday, a piece in the Los Angeles Times reported on a compromise position that leading Catholic intellectuals, sometime advisers to the president, were ready to accept from the White House; in fact, the rumors of a compromise position were highly exaggerated. In a statement released over the weekend, the Catholic advisers in question — Princeton’s Robert P. George, Crisis magazine editor Deal Hudson, and Acton Institute President Rev. Robert Sirico — made clear [click here for their letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson] that they do not favor a compromise. Their statement came as a relief to activists struggling against the media tide. As Richard Doerflinger, a point man for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on stem cells and now a regular on the talking-heads circuit, has said, the fact that no one is pressing for an all-out ban on embryonic-stem-cell research is the compromise position. The preferred position would be to prohibit the embryo-destroying research entirely, not just reroute federal dollars to research with adult stem cells and let private researchers destroy all the embryos they want.
As Fred Barnes points out in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, President Bush would have been a lot better off had he done what many proposed he do upon being sworn in: immediately issue an order barring federal funding for stem-cell research destroying human embryos, and simultaneously propose increasing federal funds for research on adult cells. Needless to say, Bush did not; and now he is faced with a vicious media spotlight on a painful issue that not many Americans, or reporters, understand.
So what’s a president to do? One possibility might be to wait a while. On Friday, we saw yet another story — in Science magazine — about the potential dangers of working with the heralded panacea of stem cells. It was not long ago that activists claimed fetal tissue, which has to be harvested, would bring a cure to diseases like Parkinson’s. But as they have tested those utopian claims on human beings, some of the results have been tragic, as the New England Journal of Medicine recently reported. Every story of this kind will increase public doubts about embryonic-stem-cell research.
There’s another reason the president should wait: The summer’s no time to do something unpopular, because the media vacuum is waiting to devour anyone that passes by. Imagine what the vulture would do, juxtaposing President Bush kissing the Papal ring in the Vatican City — days after or before announcing a ban on federal funding of embryo-destroying stem-cell research — with heartbreaking pictures of Morton Kondracke’s wife Millie, devastatingly handicapped by Parkinson’s disease.
President Bush should let the summer black hole devour Gary Condit. In the fall, he should do the right thing, the thing he promised to do in his presidential campaign: Prohibit once and for all the federal subsidy for the killing of innocent human beings.