One of the more infuriating prevarications of the presidency of George W. Bush concerned stem cell research.
On August 9, 2001, Bush delivered his first nationally televised prime-time address, and the subject was the federal funding of stem cell research. In the speech, he announced that he would allow federal funding of research involving stem cell lines that had already been created, but he said he would prohibit federal financing of research using new stem lines. His reasoning was that doing the latter would place the US government in the position of underwriting the destruction of blastocysts (a.k.a., very young embryos), and that would be morally wrong.
But have no fear, Bush said, this restriction would not get in the way of stem cell research, for there were already 60 existing stem lines. These lines, he said, "have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating opportunities for research." Funding research that depended on those existing lines while saying nyet to research utilizing new lines, he maintained, "allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line."
Bush was trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He was protecting blastocysts everywhere (and endearing himself to the Catholic Church and the anti-abortion movement), while maintaining that his administration would be supporting research that could find cures for all sorts of terrible diseases. Yet at the core of his argument was a serious misstatement of fact. There were not 60 lines available for vigorous research. By the estimates of expert scientists, between 10 and 30 lines existed, and not all of them were suitable for the best research. Many could not be regenerated indefinitely. And most were tainted by mouse DNA and not useful for the most advanced and promising sort of research related to finding cures and treatments for human diseases. The scientific community's consensus was unequivocal: The existing lines did not allow researchers to explore fully or effectively the promise and potential of stem cell research. Bush had greatly misled the public on this.
Why recall this now? Because of the news that President Obama will sign an executive order on Monday lifting Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. This will mark yet another move in the effort to undo the damage done by Bush's war on science.
For almost eight years, Bush's based-on-a-lie policy prevented research that could help scientists develop cures for serious diseases. There's probably no way to quantify the number of people who were negatively affected by this Bush decision--those who have suffered with Parkinson's, diabetes or other ailments--but there's no doubt that eight years is a long time when it comes to applying the brakes on promising research. On Monday, Obama will free federally-funded scientists from Bush's restrictions, and he will free the country from one of Bush's more consequential falsehoods.