I In approving the use of US taxpayers' money to fund stem-cell research, but only under the most tightly drawn conditions, President Bush has tried to steer a delicate course between the promise of science and the constraints of morality. It is a conundrum that faces every leader of every country where there is both a scientific establishment pushing the boundaries of medical research and a population with an ethical sensibility.
Britain is still the only country to have set the bar for stem-cell research as low as it has, permitting the cloning of embryos for research purposes as long as the embryos are destroyed within 14 days. This solution matches the aspirations of scientists to the state of public sentiment, offering a rare instance where a committee of the great and the good has met expectations. Other countries, including some of our EU partners, appear to be edging in another direction.
Weighing the interests of scientific progress against the ethical questions raised by stem-cell research was always going to present special difficulties for the United States, regardless of who was president at the time. The faith that Americans invest in the capacity of science to work for good is so great, and fundamentalist Christianity runs so deep in so many parts of the country, that the two strains were set to clash the moment research on cells from human embryos became feasible. The personal religious convictions of President Bush, and the political debts he owed not only to the Conservative right, but to big business, sharpened his dilemma.
In the end, this President who has so volubly scorned his predecessor's reliance on opinion polls found they came to his assistance. Surveys showed that an overwhelming 75 per cent of Americans placed their concern for sick friends and relatives who might eventually be helped by stem-cell research above their religious misgivings. The conservative right was split: the pro- research group was given a fillip by Nancy Reagan, who made a rare public intervention to argue that taxpayer-funded research could eventually help to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Mr Bush's own experience – he lost a sister at an early age to leukaemia, and his twin daughters are rumoured to have been test-tube babies – appears to have swayed him.
The compromise he eventually reached, however, and communicated to Americans in a nationwide broadcast on Thursday night is a paltry and half-hearted response, grossly oversold by the White House, which described it as not a "compromise" but a "solution". It delighted only those who had feared an outright ban and disappointed pretty much everyone else. From now on, researchers in the US will be able to experiment on stem cells taken from embryos that are already dead, but drawing on the multitude of frozen embryos stored in clinics across the United States is ruled out, as is cloning embryos for research.
Mr Bush's decision may be the only one that could satisfy him personally and simultaneously meet his political interests before next year's Congressional elections. Abiding by the letter of his campaign pledge not to allow the killing of embryos, it minimises protest from the right; providing funding for limited research (and also freeing funds for research on adult stem cells) preempts the outcry that a ban would have drawn from US scientists and business.
But it represents a mealy-mouthed effort indeed from a President who vowed to show courage in office and who campaigned on a boast of his talent for leadership. And it leaves a gap in research and commercial opportunities – a gap that Britain's laboratories and companies are well placed to fill.Reuse content