Respectful Insolence

President Bush’s first veto

Here we are, five and a half years into George W. Bush’s Presidency, and he’s not yet vetoed a bill. Not even a single bill. All sorts of bad legislation have been passed, from the bankruptcy reform legislation that makes it harder for people to start again after declaring bankruptcy, to budgets containing huge increases in spending, to a really offensive campaign finance reform package that restricts political speech.

All passed with nary a peep from the President.

So what gets Bush’s dander up enough to finally pull out his veto pen and use his power to veto a bill he doesn’t like?

Embryonic stem cell research, that’s what. Even his own party is turning against him on this one:

WASHINGTON – Debating science, ethics, morality and humanity, the Senate prepared Tuesday to send a bill expanding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to an unreceptive President Bush.

It wasn’t a matter of simple party politics, however, as some of Bush fellow Republicans launched a last-ditch lobbying effort to save the bill from his veto.

Wrote California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Mr. President, I urge you not to make the first veto of your presidency one that turns America backwards on the path of scientific progress and limits the promise of medical miracles for generations to come.”

And former first lady Nancy Reagan quietly made calls to a few senators to try to build support toward a veto-proof margin. But no one was predicting the legislation would win the required 67 votes.

With the showdown vote approaching, the White House left little doubt about Bush’s intentions: he will veto the bill when it reaches his desk, a statement said.

Still, supporters said the pressure of public opinion eventually will push the government toward funding the studies. They argue that research into stem cell treatments holds the promise of cures for a host of debilitating diseases afflicting millions of people.

Well, HR 810 (the bill that would authorize an expansion of Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to include cell lines derived from embryos made in fertility clinics that would be discarded anyway, passed, but it was four votes short of a veto-proof margin.

If you want the single most telling reason why I’ve drifted away from the Republican Party in recent years, President Bush’s disdain for promising medical research and the power of the religious right to force any Republican candidate to pander to them in this way is why. Yes, the promise of stem cell research has on occasion been overhyped, but even a more modest assessment makes it clear that such research holds great promise for some significant breakthroughs in medicine, breakthroughs that Bush is on the verge of making much more difficult to achieve or, worse yet, of handing over to private industry, which can do the research without Federal funding–or worst of all, of surrendering America’s lead in biotechnology to the Koreans, Chinese, and other nations who understand the potential of this research and are not shackled by fundamentalists.

Even though at least 2/3 of the nation supports funding stem cell research, it’s looking increasingly as though Bush’s policy will not be reversed until after he leaves office, thanks to the religious right. And, make no mistake about it, it will be reversed soon after Bush leaves office, almost regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans win. There’s just too much bipartisan support for funding this research (too bad it wasn’t quite enough to overcome the impending veto), and several states are trying to step in where the Federal government is dropping the ball. The only question will be when the next President signs a bill reversing Bush’s ill-advised policy: Will it be too late? Will the eight year delay have put the U.S. hopelessly behind in this area research?

Comments

  1. #1 Rasmus
    July 19, 2006

    Come on, us Europeans gave you a head start on genetic engineering of plants, slowing down on stem cells is the least you can do ;)

  2. #2 gengar
    July 19, 2006

    Presumably the veto is only coming out because funding agencies will not pay much attention to a ‘signing statement’…

  3. #3 Katie
    July 19, 2006

    Yep, just when you thought Bush could not get much worse…

  4. #4 beajerry
    July 19, 2006

    Because it’s his first veto and therefore newsworthy on its own as such, it will only fuel the fire around him and his ignorant stem-cell ban.

  5. #5 Ali
    July 19, 2006

    I really just don’t understand. If the embryos will be discarded anyway, where is the moral dilemma? By this twisted logic, we should ban harvesting and transplanting of organs.

  6. #6 BladeDoc
    July 19, 2006

    Firstly I will state that I am absolutely in favor of stem cell research and I think that it’s politcally stupid for Bush to pull out his veto on this topic. That being said why should taxpayor money be spent on ANY basic science research (sorry ORAC)? It is the fedearal government taking money from the citizen and spending it on non-essential things, not associated with national security, the protection of the citizenry, the enforcement of laws or the like. as long as I;, fantasizing I would also like to see the end of all earmarks, farm and business subsidies and the like, and the NEA should go away.

  7. #7 Ali
    July 19, 2006

    BladeDoc – because consumer demand doesn’t necessarily drive the most beneficial research in the long term. It can’t be relied upon solely for things such as cures for certain diseases. The pace of research is such that if consumer demand were the only driving force, it is easily imaginable that a disease would need to affect an even higher percentage of the population before it became economically viable for a company to begin research. Such a system would also not encourage sharing of ideas, potentially slowing the pace of research even further. So call research grants forward-thinking government protection of the populace.

  8. #8 lolzors
    July 19, 2006

    The moral dilemma is not resolved by the fact that the embryos get thrown away anyway, because to some those embryos are still people and shouldn’t exist at all unless they facilitated to full-growth.

    Look at the Japanese excuse for whaling: scientific research, oh but by the way, seeing as it would be stupid to waste so much of the whale the majority of the corpse goes to commercial use. Suddenly, whaling becomes more common when a small excuse like research is used but enables a commercial industry to spring up.

    The non-animal example can be found in the pre-natal test for Down’s babies. The test was supported because the possible difficulties it brings should be considered in a decision to continue pregnancy. As soon as the test arrives, Down’s Syndrome stops being a naturally occuring disorder that has existed since mankind started and most with Down’s can lead fulfilling lives; it becomes a horrible curse that destroys people and nearly every Down’s child detected before birth is aborted. Sometimes it has been known to be aborted *after* birth.

    My own reservations about abortion are not religious; I’m agnostic and secular, I just don’t see the invisible lines that some people draw about who is worthy of life and who isn’t.

  9. #9 Lucas McCarty
    July 19, 2006

    It was me who wrote that last post by the way. I don’t know what happened to my name. Bizzarre.

  10. #10 pat
    July 19, 2006

    Orac, I find it invigorating that despite being at total odds on one topic I find you here right up my alley. I can’t say it will brighten my day though since it is past 10pm here.

    Ali, I shall remember your intelligent words. I have copied your post and engraved it for posterity (on CD, not in on stone ;)

    And Lukas (lolzors?) I hope I’m addressing the right person. You have valuable points. The emotional implication of stem-cell research should not be taken lightly. I myself find many abjections with free-for-all abortions. But think of this. Some abortions will always be performed. Take for example, emergency life saving procedures such as to save an expectant mother from death or serious injury. So there will always be some stem cell research possible. Why ban it? Our stem cells are WE. Not pig stem cells, not cattle stem cells. We probably know a lot more about rat stem cells than we do about our own! In that huge ball-busting riddle called the human mind and body I believe stem cells are a potentially very important piece to the puzzle; the key maybe, to a much larger arena of research and discovery. How can we ban research in our riddle? It is not obvious that the study of all of our components is essential if we want one day to be able to say with confidence the ultimate “Eureka!”
    Stem cell research realy does not have anything to do with “who is worthy of life and who isn’t”. That is a completely different subject altogether.

  11. #11 Frank Pryor
    July 19, 2006

    To Bladoc’s comment:

    ” That being said why should taxpayor money be spent on ANY basic science research (sorry ORAC)? It is the fedearal government taking money from the citizen and spending it on non-essential things, not associated with national security, the protection of the citizenry, the enforcement of laws or the like.”

    Bladoc,

    The sentiment that government should spend none of our money is an attractive one. We really don’t need to know what the far side of the moon looks like. Teflon and Tang are not essential to our health or security. We would have found our way out of the Great Depression eventually and the Rural Electrification Project and the Internet would have happened in some other form eventually. In such a world some of us would even be able to afford to run toasters and check our email.

    It is tempting to suggest that we should rely upon the private sector solely for scientific advancement, artistic expression and social evolution if only because of what we know about government: it’s expensive and it’s clumsy.

    Yet government funding of all sorts of programs result in a vastly better world for all of us and a rate of progress, technological, scientific, social and artistic, which very, very few of us would be willing to give up. Even those of us who agree that government is expensive and clumsy. And rotten to the core.

    Regards,

    Frank

  12. #12 Lucas McCarty
    July 19, 2006

    I’ll reiterate that I have no idea why my name came up as ‘lolzors’, though likely that I misclicked when picking my name from the field window.

    Pat, I agree that stem cells should not determine who is and isn’t worthy of life, I disagree that this is not currently happening and will grow. The current fashionable thinking on the unborn is that they are human but not people, or at least not people worthy of life because of an ambigious and fuzzy line of thinking which believes the only kind of person worthy of life is one who can survive ‘independently’ outside the womb- completely ignoring the fact that there has never been a case of even a born baby surviving without constant care. Because an embryonic person doesn’t have a presumption of worth, there is not moral barrier preventing the harvesting of stem cells from embryos. Once this happens, as it always happens with so many things, the number of embryos that exist purely to farm cells will shoot to outnumber embryos intended for giving children. Because stem cells have the potential to benefit hugely, there is a deterrent towards ever considering the rights of the unborn.

    I support stem cell research and understand most can be gained from embryos, but I strongly oppose that means of harvesting cells. They are not donors with a choice.

    Moving back to abortion for a minute though; I understand that there will always be abortions, I can tolerate though I can’t accept. But I don’t tolerate or accept a common and unfounded presumption of the unborn being lumps of cells that are not yet people. History is dotted with this thinking being used to dehumanise one hated group or another and the only reason why it has gone on so long concerning unborn children is because they are unable to argue their own defense.

  13. #13 Webs
    July 19, 2006

    While I do think that the government should fund stem cell research, what makes private funding so bad?

  14. #14 Lucas McCarty
    July 20, 2006

    Private funding(commercial interest) in stem cells means cutting corners where ethics are concerned. Same with GM food. Those who have a vested commercial interest in a controversial issue always seem to have the lobbying power to affect the thinking of those in office too. If you can sell GM food, suddenly a lot of politicians are being taken to (organic?) dinners and come home thinking GM food is good for everyone, not just the biotech companies and those of us in Europe where GM seed is banned eventually get it forced on us in some way.

    With stem cells you add another layer of deterrence for considering the rights of unborn children if it becomes profitable in addition to medically beneficial. You get lobbying and suddenly very few in office oppose it. It’s commodity thinking; when something is only worth money, it is worth far less than when money couldn’t buy it.

  15. #15 BladeDoc
    July 20, 2006

    Frank, I appreciate your answer. I am ambivalent on the issue because I feel that much of the basic science would be done anyway, and for less money (look how fast and how cheaply the X-prize guys worked) but I do feel that there may be market failures in some circumstances that would benenfit from non-market limited (i.e. government) funds . However specifically in the stem cell debate, private companies and other countries are already aggressively pursuing the research. A lack of US gov. money would not bring an end to this research. The market has clearly not failed in this regard.

    Lucas — can you seriously posit that the government qua government is MORE ethical than the average company? The Tuskegee syphilis trials, the VA radiation tests, and the experiments on bacterial transmission (using that bright red although admittedly mostly harmless bacteria (whose name I can’t remember) on the public without informing them) argue against that. I don’t believe that private companies are more ethical but they are more accountable — government bureaucrats rarely go to jail.

  16. #16 Lucas McCarty
    July 20, 2006

    BladeDoc, I’m in the UK so I can’t relate to any of the apparent ‘scandals’ you mentioned. They are ancedotes anyway and tallying the number of private scandals compared with public ones isn’t a measure of who is more ethical. If you invoke the term ‘average company’ then you can only be refering to companies that fail, as that is what the average company does unless a sizable market share is siezed and today most markets are in the hands much fewer companies than in decades past. Where stem cells are concerned, the companies making a profit will not be average.

    Companies and governments have no collective conscience and can’t have ethics in any meangingful way, but individuals can. I’m not well-informed of how things work in the US but my impression has always been that public life is grossly dependent on the private sector; you can’t get into public office without backing and doing services for those giving the backing. You can’t draw a fine line between the two and appropriate responsibility for wrongdoing exclusively to just one of these attracted opposites.

    Government works when it is at it’s most bureaucratic because it becomes an inefficient tool for serving commercial interests. But it’s important some parts are way more or less bureaucratic than others.

  17. #17 The Ridger
    July 20, 2006

    Basic research is something that the government should support, in my opinion. It’s among those things that people can’t do for themselves, like build roads or maintain an army or health care.

    And I believe that if Bush isn’t being a raging hypocrite, tomorrow he should get someone to submit legislation banning fertility clinics from operating: if you can’t destroy life to save existing life, how on earth can you destroy life to make a brand new one?

    (Let me add, I neither agree with that position, nor do I expect Bush to do anything but posture for his base.)

  18. #18 Keith Douglas
    July 22, 2006

    Basic science is needed (though I am worried that not enough of that is being done in the stem cell area and others) because one simply cannot know what areas are going to lead to technology, nevermind to artifacts. So a narrow pragmatism is self defeating. Nevermind the fact that pure research is culturally important, and moreover impossible to support otherwise.