Does Bush really think stem cell science is "murder"?

The president believes that destroying embryos for stem cells is "murder." Yet he doesn't favor making it illegal.

Published July 19, 2006 12:20AM (EDT)

As far as I can tell, George W. Bush, who opposes destroying human embryos for stem cell research, has never referred to such destruction as "murder," a word that some on the right often reach for when fighting embryonic science. But today, Tony Snow, his spokesman, used that word:

"The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research it's inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder; he's one of them," Snow said when asked why Bush plans to use his first veto to block passage of a bill that would increase federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Snow went on to say that "the simple answer is he thinks murder is wrong."

But if Bush thinks that destroying embryos amounts to murder, he sure has a funny way of showing it. As Bush knows -- and as Snow pointed out Tuesday -- under federal law and in most U.S. states it is perfectly legal to destroy human embryos using private funds. Such destruction isn't rare -- it occurs all the time, and research on stem cells derived from embryonic destruction has led to many breakthroughs in stem cell science. According to Bush, this destruction must be something like mass murder. But Bush does not favor making it illegal to destroy embryos. He only supports preventing federal funds from going to research on cells derived from destroyed embryos.

Isn't this an odd way to respond to murder? If you believed that people were being killed for research, wouldn't you speak out in their favor? Wouldn't you try to go after their killers? Wouldn't you do more -- much more -- than simply blocking the money going to fund the murderers?

Not Bush. Indeed, he has actively resisted outlawing embryo destruction. In 2004, when some conservative Republicans attempted to insert a plank in the Republican platform calling for restrictions on stem cell research, the White House fought them. What's more, Bush supports in vitro fertilization treatments for infertile couples, a process that necessarily creates and destroys "spare" embryos.

The bill the Senate passed Tuesday would allow the government to fund research on cells derived from IVF embryos that are currently in frozen storage, embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. When a reporter pointed this out to Snow, the spokesman called the situation -- hundreds of thousands of embryos stored in freezers and slated for destruction -- a "tragedy."

But, he said, "the president is not going to get on the slippery slope of taking something that is living and making it dead for the purpose of research." Apparently Bush would rather see embryos "die" for no purpose at all.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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