It's murder, yes, but we've got to strike a balance

Josh Bolten defends the president's position on stem cell research.

Published July 24, 2006 1:42PM (EDT)

As our colleague Farhad Manjoo reported in this space the other day, White House press secretary Tony Snow said last week that George W. Bush was vetoing legislation that would have expanded federal funding for stem cell research because he believes that it's "inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder." Just to make things perfectly clear, Snow added that the president himself is "one of" those people.

As Manjoo asked, if Bush really thinks that destroying embryos amounts to murder, why stop at banning federal funding for research? Why not make it a felony to destroy the embryos in the first place? He isn't the only one asking. Tim Russert put the question to White House chief of staff Josh Bolten Sunday. The exchange -- Russert's mockery, Bolten's refusal to budge from the talking points -- was more amusing than illuminating, but we'll take what we can get:

Russert: If the president believes it is human life, how can he allow private stem cell research to go forward, go forward, if, in fact, that is murder?

Bolten: It's a very, it's a very difficult balance. I mean, the president recognizes that there are millions of Americans who don't recognize that as a human life, and that the promise of that research for the saving of life is so important that they, that they want that to go forward. What the president has said is that as far as the federal policy is concerned, no federal funds, your tax dollars and my tax dollars, will go towards promoting the destruction of that human embryo.

Russert: But you're using federal funds for existing lines, which were of embryos. So were those embryos that the federal government is experimenting on obtained by homicidal means?

Bolten: Those, those embryos, those stem cell lines, were already -- those embryos were already destroyed, and, and that's where the president -- the president's policies draw the line. That is that our tax dollars, from the point that the president made his policy statement forward, our tax dollars are not going to go to further incent the destruction of those fertilized embryos. Let me, let me ...

Russert: The logic, Mr. Bolten, as people are listening to this, the president is saying no, we can't use embryos that are going to be discarded by in vitro clinics because, according to a spokesman, that's murder. But we can use embryos that were existing before I became president, that's OK. And if you have a private company and you want to use those embryos, that's OK. Back to the central question: Does the president agree with his spokesman, Tony Snow, that the research on the embryo, in fact, to use that embryo is murder?

Bolten: The president thinks that that embryo, that fertilized embryo, is a human life that deserves protection ...

Russert: But does he accept or reject the use of the word "murder"?

Bolten: I haven't spoken to him about the use, the use of particular terminology, but the -- but let me come back to the fundamental point here, Tim, and that is that there's, there's a balance that needs to be struck, and it's a very difficult balance for, for any president to strike, between, between the needs of allowing science that can be life-saving to go forward, and reflecting the ethics and morals of this society. And as, as far as those, those fertilized human embryos are concerned that are, that are going to be discarded anyway, there was, there was a very moving ceremony, I thought, in the East Room of the White House this week, when the president discussed his stem cell policy. And onstage there with him -- you had a clip of it at the top of the show -- onstage there with him there were some children who are the products of those fertilized embryos that otherwise would have been, would have been destroyed.

Russert: Well, 128 embryos were adopted. But 400,000 are now not being used, and will be probably discarded. And you're saying they should not be used for research by the federal government.

Bolten: Yes, that is the president's policy.

Russert: Would you then move to close down in vitro clinics -- if, in fact, those embryos are being created and used by private companies for research and the president's spokesman says that's murder, and the president said it's a human life, why not then close down the in vitro fertility clinics? Because they're creating embryos that, in the president's view, will be murdered.

Bolten: That's not where the president has, has drawn the balance. He's drawn the balance with -- the line with federal funding, people's tax dollars not going to -- not going to incent the further destruction of the human life. Look, 400,000 ...

Russert: But he will -- he will allow private cell research companies to "destroy human life."

Bolten: That issue isn't before him. What's before him is what -- the issue of what will federal funds be used for. Look, those, those 400,000 fertilized ...

Russert: But he could take steps to outlaw that.

Bolten: Those 400,000 human -- fertilized human embryos, I'm sure the president fervently wishes that, that every single one of them is going to get adopted and turn into one of those beautiful kids we saw at the ceremony.

Russert: All 400,000 are going to be adopted?

Bolten: No. They're not likely to be, and that's, that's, that's very sad for this country.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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