Stem cell decision lacks principle

In his book “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy honored some of the outstanding figures of American government, leaders who saw beyond the political pressures of their times and, with a solid grasp of their principles, made hard decisions with the good of the country in mind. It seems the revised edition will not need to save room for a chapter on George W. Bush. The president’s “decision” Thursday on federal funding for stem cell research was a case study in pandering to the prevailing political mood rather than taking a stand on principle.

Although he carefully acknowledged all the major arguments presented by advocates on both sides of the issue, the president decided only to acquiesce to what was already happening, to allow research on existing embryonic stem cell lines. He failed to deliver any verdict on the underlying moral questions: Are these stem cells life, and if so, do the potential benefits of stem cell research outweigh the protections human life is entitled to?

The answers to these questions will set the bounds of what federal research policies are morally acceptable. But Bush sidestepped them completely when the time came for him to render a landmark judgment on them.

The president merely postponed the inevitable decision, perhaps hoping to foist it off onto his successor. Bush has pegged his decision and his political fortunes to those 60 existing stem cell lines, but once they are consumed by researchers, the decision the
president neglected to make will once again become a pressing necessity. Never again will the issue be as straightforward as it was for Bush: a clash of values and morals unencumbered by what research has or has not produced.

Bush had the chance to make a permanent legacy for himself, one that history books a century from now would still teach. But Bush dropped the presidential ball, choosing a politically innocuous middle of the road over taking a stand on his principles. To be sure, no one will deny that stem cell research is, as the president said, “a complex and difficult issue,” but it is no more complex and difficult than issues other American leaders have faced with profound moral courage and resolute determination to stand by their convictions. Complex and difficult decisions are an occupational hazard for the leader of the free world, and history will not forget – nor will the American people forgive – Bush’s lack of a “courageous profile” in the face of this monumental question.

Kennedy praised the subjects of his book not for the substance of their decisions but rather for the greater significance of their willingness to look beyond the scorn of their neighbors, the criticisms of their peers and their hopes for their political futures to make the decisions that, at moments of moral and national crisis, they knew from their most deeply held convictions had to be made. The American people are entitled to a president worthy to follow in such resolute footsteps.