Columns » Ernest Dumas

Bush's heartless act

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When President Bush blocked federally-funded medical research on discarded embryonic stem cells from fertility clinics, many Republicans feared that he not only dashed the hopes of millions of people for early cures of diseases that afflict them or their loved ones but the party’s hopes for another season of election triumphs.

Bush may well have achieved both results when he vetoed the stem-cell bill passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress. A handful of conservative Republicans bucked Bush and the religious extremists who held him to his promise to veto stem-cell research legislation, and their revolt may give the party a little cover with voters, who want stem-cell research to go forward. For the sufferers of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and scores of other diseases that might yield to this exciting new medical tool, nothing softens the bad news.

It will be too bad if Bush’s heartless act does not awaken Americans to the wider tragedy that it represents: the consignment of science for nearly a decade to a group of religious fundamentalists as narrow-minded and radical in their way as the most fanatic extremists of the Middle East. How and why a swaggering Texas playboy bought into narrow religious doctrines and extreme ideology and made them the standard of truth in scientific matters will be a great study for historians.

Is heartless too strong a word to describe Bush’s first veto as president? The result is to condemn thousands of people to suffer prolonged illnesses and to die prematurely. For what immutable principle?

To answer that question, Bush blocked photographs of his veto but invited pictures at a photo-op where he preened with “snowflake” babies, those adopted from surplus embryos at fertility clinics. His point was that the surplus embryos could be adopted rather than used in medical research or simply thrown away. But there are 400,000 frozen embryos that will be dumped, and a grand total of 128 couples wanted to adopt one of those embryos.

Tony Snow, the president’s press secretary, said Bush believed that doing research on a frozen embryonic clump, which is smaller than one of these commas, amounted to “murder,” the term used by the religious right. It would be “murder” even if it produced life-saving cures for millions of people around the earth. Snow came out later to say that the president would rather not use the word “murder.”

This is merely the latest illustration of the controlling doctrine of the government since 2001, but its consequences happen to be plain. Many of the others are not.

You remember the president’s withdrawal of United States support for the Kyoto Protocol on climate change because he did not believe global warming was occurring and, anyway, saving the planet would impose unfair burdens on American business.

Nearly everywhere, the administration has rejected the scientific consensus of experts, such as when it devised rules for the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act that ignored the recommendations of scientific advisers and evidence from hundreds of studies and when it opened thousands of acres of national forests to logging over the protest of federal scientists.

Ideology and narrow religion, not the scientific method, determine the standard of truth. Throughout government, in scientific posts and on scientific advisory councils, real scientists have been dismissed, driven out or marginalized and replaced by religious fundamentalists. Michael Specter related it all in relentless detail in the March 13 New Yorker.

The results are most obvious in medicine. The prevailing doctrine at the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services is that medical breakthroughs should be thwarted if they prevent premarital pregnancy or eliminate disease or death from diseases that might occur as a result of premarital sex. The FDA refuses to make the emergency contraceptive Plan B (the morning-after pill) available over the counter because adolescent girls might get hold of it and have sex without suffering the consequences.

Last month, the FDA finally gave in and approved a vaccine that is 100 percent effective in protecting women against the most prevalent viruses that cause cervical cancer. But evangelical groups want to prevent its widespread use in school immunizations on the theory that if young teens get it they will not be scared of dying some day from cervical cancer and will want to have sex. Bush’s man in charge of the advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control that recommends immunization policies is Reginald Finger, who is connected to Focus on the Family, the most powerful evangelical group. The drug manufacturer is lobbying Finger and Focus on the Family to let the vaccine be used in immunization efforts.

Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released a survey of 997 FDA staff members that concluded that science was under attack and struggling at the FDA. Seventeen percent said they had been told to exclude or alter scientific information or their conclusions in FDA documents for nonscientific reasons, and more than 40 percent said they knew of cases where political appointees injected themselves into scientific conclusions.

Having the most anti-intellectual president in history can be entertaining at times, as he demonstrated at the G-8 summit last week, but we pay for it with needless suffering.


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