Bill Hurlbut is a very close friend and colleague, and thanks to a Kathleen Parker column in the Washington Post, he is in the news regarding former Governor Mitt Romney’s ideological transition from pro choice to pro life. From “Behind Romney’s Change of Heart on Abortion:”
Romney’s own change of heart evolved not from personal experience but rather from a purposeful course of study. I know this because I know the man who instructed him in 2005 on the basics of embryonic life during the stem-cell research debate then taking place in Massachusetts. As governor at the time, Romney was under intense pressure to help flip a state law that protected embryos from stem-cell research. Some of that pressure came from Harvard University, Romney’s alma mater, where scientists hoped to assume a leading role in stem-cell research.
The politically expedient choice was obvious, but Romney took a more thoughtful approach and sought to educate himself before staking out a position. Enter William Hurlbut, a physician and professor of biomedical ethics at Stanford University Medical School. For several hours, Hurlbut and Romney met in the governor’s office and went through the dynamics of conception, embryonic development and the repercussions of research that targets nascent human life. It was not a light lunch.
Here is what Bill told Parker about his conversation with Romney:
“Several things about our conversation still stand out strongly in my mind,” Hurlbut told me. “First, he clearly recognized the significance of the issue, not just as a current controversy but as a matter that would define the character of our culture way into the future.
“Second, it was obvious that he had put in a real effort to understand both the scientific prospects and the broader social implications. Finally, I was impressed by both his clarity of mind and sincerity of heart. . . . He recognized that this was not a matter of purely abstract theory or merely pragmatic governance, but a crucial moment in how we are to regard nascent human life and the broader meaning of medicine in the service of life.”
For what it’s worth, I spoke at some length with Bill very soon after the meeting referenced by Parker, and that was just the way he described it to me at the time. He was thoroughly convinced of Romney’s intellectual seriousness and moral probity in considering the issue.
But then again, as I have repeatedly written, embryonic stem cell research and legalized abortion deal with different matters, e.g. the reason abortion was made a right by the Supreme Court involved the personal autonomy and privacy of the woman, matters irrelevant to ESCR. Thus, one can consistently be pro choice and opposed to government funding of (and/or) ESCR and human cloning research–and not suffer ideological whiplash. I don’t think the same thing can be said the other way around.
Oh, and while we’re on the issue of Hurbut, I have a profile of him coming out shortly in the American Journal of Bioethics. More on that soon.