In his Decision Points book, George W. Bush described the decision-making process he used early in his presidency to deal with the issue of embryonic stem-cell research. Ultimately, Bush decided to oppose federal funding of the research (except for research on a few already-existing stem cells), and part of his rationale for reaching this extreme pro-life position was that he was “worried that sanctioning the destruction of human embryos for research would be a step down a slippery slope from science fiction to medical reality.”
I wonder if the concept of a slippery slope is just an excuse for refusing to compromise and find a middle ground, with the result that America veers from one extreme position to another.
I can’t think of two more extreme positions than two abortion-related issues:
- Prohibiting embryonic stem-cell research; and
- Allowing partial-birth abortions.
Embryonic stem-cell research
Because of Bush’s pro-life position, his concern for the destruction of human embryos to further medical research might seem reasonable on the surface, but the devil is in the details. The oft-overlooked detail is that the embryonic stem cells would be obtained from frozen embryos that were left over to die from in vitro fertilization (IVF) efforts.
To his credit, Bush acknowledged this detail by quoting a bioethicist, Dr. Louis Guenin, “If we spurn [embryonic stem cell research], not one more baby is likely to be born.” But Bush decided to reject this eminently reasonable counsel from Dr. Guenin and instead chose to accept unintelligible advice from the National Right to Life and other bioethicists:
- “[The National Right to Life] pointed out that each tiny cell cluster had the potential to grow into a person. In fact, each of us had started our lives in this early stage. As evidence, they pointed to a new program run by Nightlife Christian Adoptions. The agency secured permission from IVF participants to place their unused frozen embryos up for adoption. Loving mothers had the embryos implanted in them and carried the babies – known as snowflakes – to term. The message was unmistakable: Within every frozen embryo were the beginnings of a child.” My response to that is – Tell us something we didn’t already know. Yes, embryos can become babies, but these embryos are destined to die.
- “Many of the bioethicists I met took the same position. They acknowledged that most embryos frozen in IVF clinics would not become children. Yet they argued that there was a moral difference between allowing embryos to die naturally and proactively ending their life. Sanctioning the destruction of life to save life, they argued, crossed into dangerous moral territory.” My response to that is – You are begging the question. What is the moral difference between allowing a frozen embryo to die vs. using the discarded embryo to save life.
Because of Bush’s unwillingness to engage in actual reasoning that compares the interests of the embryos against the benefits to society, Bush issued a controversial executive order in 2001 that prohibited federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. Eight years later in 2009, Barack H. Obama uncontroversially reversed this order and authorized federal funding for stem-cell research. Although George W. Bush thought he was avoiding a slippery slope, I suspect he was futilely trying to hold back the tide.
Pro-life conservatives don’t have a monopoly on extreme positions. Pro-choice liberals have for years waged a battle against common-sense Americans on the issue of partial-birth abortion, a/k/a intact dilation and extraction. As most people know, a partial-birth abortion means that part of a fetus is extracted before the fetus is killed, often by suctioning the brain from the skull. In the 1990s, Congress passed laws prohibiting partial-birth abortions, but President Clinton vetoed them. This was a classic case of the Democratic Party being forced by special-interest politics to defend the indefensible. Like pro-life conservatives refusing to budge on stem-cell research, the pro-choice liberals refused to budge on partial-birth abortions. Their thinking – Let’s avoid the slippery slope of concessions and appeasement – compromise and the common sense of the American people be damned.
Of course, the ultimate result is the same – i.e., liberals were not avoiding the slippery slope, but instead were futilely trying to hold back the tide. When Clinton was replaced by George W. Bush, Congress in 2003 again passed a law prohibiting partial-birth abortion, and President Bush signed it into law. Although several federal courts concluded the law was unconstitutional, it was eventually upheld in 2007 by the U.S. Supreme Court – Gonzales v. Carhart.
Special interests in Washington pressure politicians to take extreme positions, with the result that government policy veers erratically from one extreme to the other. If politicians were more responsive to their constituents instead of being indebted to special interests, government policy would be more reasonable and consistent. Special interests are likely to more powerful following the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, so something has to be done to reduce that power. I suggest a movement toward public financing of campaigns, but that movement has to be bottom-up grassroots, not top-down astroturf.