What does modesty look like in bioethics? I’m not sure, but the weight of such decisions demands a restraint greater than the medical and scientific communities seem to be demonstrating.
Jay Lefkowitz, who navigated the deliberations about George Bush's stem-cell policy, has penned a fascinating account of the judicious and careful deliberation Bush went through in shaping his now-vindicated policy.*
Now that the debate seems to be over, what can we say about Bush’s policy and the long months it took for him to devise it? I think it is fair to look upon it as a model of how to deal with the complicated scientific and ethical dilemmas that will continue to confront political leaders in the age of biotechnology. Bush refused to accept the notion that we must choose between medical research and the principle of the dignity of life at every stage. He sought both to advance biomedical science and at the same time to respect the sanctity of human life. In the end he came to a moderate, balanced decision that drew a prudent and principled line. The decision was both informed and reasoned, based on lengthy study and consultation with people of widely divergent viewpoints. It was consciously not guided by public-opinion polls.
Unfortunately, Lefkowitz notes that Bush did not display such prudence on every controversial policy decision. Yet when students of history evaluate the Bush presidency, his position on stem-cells ought to be included among the many times George Bush adhered to his principles despite significant political cost.
*I do not want to imply that I approve of the destruction of any human embryos, which Bush's policy allowed for. As a matter of ethics, I find the practice immoral. As a matter of policy, Bush's restrained approach has been successful.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.