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Bush's anti-intellectual, callously cynical stem cell veto
Morning Sentinel
L. Sandy Maisel
Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
July 23, 2006

I never thought I would begin a column by quoting Senator Bill Frist -- the conservative Senate Republican Majority Leader -- positively. On Thursday, citing research advances in the last five years, Frist responded to President Bush's veto of the embryonic stem cell research bill by saying, "Given the potential of this research and the limitations of the existing [human embryonic stem cell] lines eligible for federally funded research, I think additional lines should be made available."

In his veto message, the President said, "In 2001, I set forth a new policy on stem cell research that struck a balance between the needs of science and the demands of conscience." He continued, "If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers for the first time in our history would be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Crossing this line would be a grave mistake." After vetoing the legislation, the President held a ceremonial press conference, surrounded by babies who had been born as a result of in vitro fertilization.

I could not decide if I was more offended by the President's anti-intellectualism, his imposition of his moral convictions on the nation, or his callous cynicism.

This is the President who, in his Commencement Address at his alma mater, Yale University, bragged that his mediocre academic record had not impeded his career. He is proud of the fact that he rarely reads books. And he apparently has no interest in scientific advances. It is as if he said, "I made up my mind five years ago. Don't confuse me with anything that has happened since." Our nation cannot afford to ignore advances in science. The work of scientists on embryonic stem cell lines has shown great promise in curing diseases that afflict literally millions of Americans. To the President, apparently, that work is irrelevant.

Iowa's Senator Tom Harkin, commenting on the veto, chided the President for imposing himself as the nation's "moral Ayatollah." Harsh criticism, but true. The President draws a moral line not to be crossed, defining the use of embryonic stem cells as violating the sanctity of human life. The vast majority of Americans do not share that moral view. The President and those who share his position on medical ethics stretch arguments much further than most Americans are prepared to go. Debating this issue is one thing; imposing the President's moral stance on the nation is another.

Perhaps most offensive is the White House's clear view that this is a wedge issue ripe for exploitation. The President's orchestration of the veto clearly played to the pro-life elements in the country, to social conservatives, to his political base. The circle is now complete.

The "compassionate conservative" of 2000 has become the coldhearted political exploiter of 2006. We'll see whether his political calculation is a correct one, but there is no doubt about the President's goal of reigniting the abortion issue for the upcoming election.

With his political back to the wall, George Bush and his team show their true colors. Just as they used racial politics for their political benefit at the expense of Sen. John McCain in 2000, just as they used character assassination for their political benefit at the expense of John Kerry in 2004, now they turn to the abortion issue and its latest variation, the spending of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Have they no shame?

I disagree with those who draw a moral line here. Fertility clinics currently are holding approximately 400,000 embryonic cells that will not be used for in vitro fertilization. They will be destroyed -- or will remain frozen until they become useless for fertilization. Neither the President nor any of his pro-life allies have come forth with a plan for using these embryos.

Where are the 400,000 couples who will use these cells? The alternative the President proposes for the use of these cells is totally unrealistic, and he knows it. Will the President and his allies propose bills to fund these procedures? Of course not.

President Bush touts his own record, claiming to have funded more embryonic stem cell research than any previous president. The procedure was only discovered in 1998. Talk about a self-serving claim. He ignores five years of research that does not support his position. He all but belittles the potential for ending suffering for millions of American families. And he does so in a way calculated to divide the nation and garner political game. We deserve better.

L. Sandy Maisel is the director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.

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