Saturday, December 29, 2007

"We're Tinkering With The Boundaries Of Human Life Here"

A remarkable, detailed and insightful insider account on how President Bush formulated his policy on stem cell research has been published in Commentary Magazine.

It's certainly rare to find stories that supply such detail on how Bush researches, discusses and ultimately reaches a position on an issue as contentious as stem cells. Regardless of whether you agree with Bush on limiting stem cell research, the process discussed in this story is fascinating, particularly the 'scene' where the advisor reads to Bush from Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World'. Some excerpts from the insider account :

In the United States, domestic policy is usually made when Congress sends the President a piece of legislation. He and his administration will often have been deeply involved in the crafting of that legislation, which he is then given to sign or to veto. In this case, in part by statute, and in part (as we shall see) because of a legal finding by the Clinton administration, Bush found himself with the sole authority to decide how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should apportion its research dollars on stem cells. The decision was his to render, and his alone.

Months before his final announcement, Bush personally set in motion a highly unusual process of deliberation inside the White House. The process combined philosophical and scientific research with investigations into both the morality and the practicality of various policy options.

In my first meeting with the President about stem cells, we discussed the basic issue in broad strokes. He was not being asked to assess the legality or even the wisdom of stem-cell research per se. No law in the country banned it, nor was anyone in either party pressing for such a ban. Rather, the question being put to him was whether he would authorize the use of federal funds—i.e., monies allocated by Congress for scientific investigation, to be conducted by the National Institutes of Health, in the area of embryonic stem cells alone.

As a first step, Bush asked me to prepare a set of background reading materials on the scientific aspects of stem-cell research. He also asked for a summary of the relevant laws of other countries, and a description of what the world’s leading religions had to say on the issue. Once I began turning in my memos, a day rarely passed when he did not call with a follow-up request or a question about something he had read. It was clear that in addition to the material I submitted, he was also finding other things to read and was talking about stem cells with friends and intimates.

I brought into the Oval Office my copy of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 anti-utopian novel, and as I read passages aloud imagining a future in which humans would be bred in hatcheries, a chill came over the room.

“We’re tinkering with the boundaries of life here,” Bush said when I finished. “We’re on the edge of a cliff. And if we take a step off the cliff, there’s no going back. Perhaps we should only take one step at a time.”

The Full Commentary Magazine Story Is Here