Politics & Policy

Identical Twins

What's the difference between Bush and Romney on stem cells?

My colleague Kathryn Lopez has recently gotten some grief for writing favorably about Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s stance on stem-cell research; the criticism reminded me of one feature of the coverage that puzzles me. Many media outlets have said that Romney’s position differs from Bush’s. I don’t see how.

Bush’s position is that when it comes to “leftover” embryos at fertility clinics, the destruction of the embryos for the purpose of research should be allowed but not funded by the government. Cloning, however, should be banned. Isn’t that exactly what Romney’s position is? I haven’t seen anything that suggests that Romney supports state funding for embryo-destructive research, and that doesn’t seem to be what’s at issue in the state legislature.

I can see two possible bases for differentiating between the two men’s positions. There is, first, a rhetorical difference, in that Romney explicitly says that he favors research on fertility-clinic embryos while Bush sometimes opposes it. That’s not a totally insignificant difference, but it seems a lot smaller than the one the coverage would lead you to believe exists.

Second, it could be argued that the difference is one of circumstance. Existing Massachusetts law is ambiguous with respect to the legality of both types of embryo-destructive research (that is, of research that destroys IVF embryos and research that destroys cloned embryos): Local prosecutors are required to sign off. Romney supports liberalizing the law in part (the part concerning IVF embryos) and restricting it in another (the part concerning cloned embryos). Federal law allows both types of research; Bush isn’t supporting any liberalization.

But, again, how important is this difference?

I think the best policy would outlaw both kinds of research. But I think it’s defensible for Bush to see that a fight to prohibit research that destroys embryos from fertility clinics is unwinnable and would eliminate his chances of succeeding on other fronts. Most pro-lifers have (at least tacitly) taken the same view as me. If Bush gets to make that kind of political decision, why can’t Romney? Pro-lifers may very well not like Romney as much as Bush given their differing positions on abortion–but that difference shouldn’t cloud our judgment on stem-cell issues.

I should note that I’m not on any Romney-for-president bandwagon. I’m just not sure how judging Romney harshly on the IVF-embryo question advances any pro-life goals.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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