Commentary Magazine


Topic: stem cells

Bush’s Book Triumph

According to the UK’s Daily Mail, President George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points, has sold 2 million copies since it was released early last month. By way of comparison, President Clinton’s memoir, My Life, has sold 2.2 million since it was published in 2004. A spokesman for Crown, which published Decision Points, called the performance “remarkable” and said that he could not think of any other non-fiction hardback book that has sold even a million copies in 2010.

At the end of the Bush presidency, some people argued that no publisher worth its salt would publish Bush’s memoir — and if it did, Bush should be paid much less than Clinton. The argument was that Bush was terribly unpopular and no one would have any interest in revisiting the Bush years. There was even speculation by a few that if Decision Points leaked out prior to the 2010 mid-term election, it would damage GOP prospects of taking back the House. And there were even a few who believed that Democrats who ran against Mr. Bush after his presidency would triumph (for example, the New York Times‘s Paul Krugman thought running against Bush would be the path to victory for Jon Corzine against Chris Christie).

All of this turned out to be complete nonsense. President Bush’s memoir is extremely well done, particularly for a presidential memoir (they tend to be poorly written and not terribly revealing). It provides readers with keen insights into the decision-making process that defined the Bush presidency, from stem cells to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Freedom Agenda to AIDS and malaria initiatives and much more.

As has often been the case with this two-term president, Mr. Bush’s critics misunderestimated him. His presidency is in the process of undergoing a significant reevaluation; the success of Decision Points is simply more testimony to this.

According to the UK’s Daily Mail, President George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points, has sold 2 million copies since it was released early last month. By way of comparison, President Clinton’s memoir, My Life, has sold 2.2 million since it was published in 2004. A spokesman for Crown, which published Decision Points, called the performance “remarkable” and said that he could not think of any other non-fiction hardback book that has sold even a million copies in 2010.

At the end of the Bush presidency, some people argued that no publisher worth its salt would publish Bush’s memoir — and if it did, Bush should be paid much less than Clinton. The argument was that Bush was terribly unpopular and no one would have any interest in revisiting the Bush years. There was even speculation by a few that if Decision Points leaked out prior to the 2010 mid-term election, it would damage GOP prospects of taking back the House. And there were even a few who believed that Democrats who ran against Mr. Bush after his presidency would triumph (for example, the New York Times‘s Paul Krugman thought running against Bush would be the path to victory for Jon Corzine against Chris Christie).

All of this turned out to be complete nonsense. President Bush’s memoir is extremely well done, particularly for a presidential memoir (they tend to be poorly written and not terribly revealing). It provides readers with keen insights into the decision-making process that defined the Bush presidency, from stem cells to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Freedom Agenda to AIDS and malaria initiatives and much more.

As has often been the case with this two-term president, Mr. Bush’s critics misunderestimated him. His presidency is in the process of undergoing a significant reevaluation; the success of Decision Points is simply more testimony to this.

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Hitchens on Lefkowitz

A couple of weeks ago, Gordon G. Chang wrote about the State Department’s shameful disavowal of its special envoy for human rights in North Korea, Jay Lefkowitz. (Lefkowitz, a COMMENTARY contributor, published “Stem Cells and the President” in our January issue.) Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Lefkowitz had registered some blunt complaints about the ineffectiveness of the six-party talks to disarm North Korea, and emphasized the failings of South Korea and China in particular. Today in Slate, Christopher Hitchens takes up Lefkowitz’s cause.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had distanced the Bush administration from Lefkowitz’s comments by telling him to stick to human rights and leave the disarmament business to the big shots—in almost those words. Hitchens argues that in the case of North Korea the challenges of human rights and nuclear disarmament are necessarily linked:

The specific method of enslavement north of the border is to consider all citizens to be conscripts as well as serfs, an unprecedented mobilization that in the last resort has every North Korean a robotized soldier. This, in turn, especially given the proximity of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the so-called “demilitarized zone,” compels South Korea to maintain a disproportionate armed force and the United States to commit an extraordinary number of its own troops, ships, and airplanes…Because of famine and exploitation, the average North Korean soldier is now as much as 6 inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart. The struggle—ideological, political, and military—would be more or less over if Pyongyang did not have a thermonuclear capacity and a well-earned reputation for being governed by an unpredictable psychopath who may not understand the concept of self-preservation.

Hitchens goes on to point out the undesirability of a policy that managed to denuclearize North Korea incrementally, through bribes, at the expense of the human rights cause.

Now, this might not matter so much if it were only as irritating and humiliating as the long-drawn-out charade that we played with Saddam Hussein and are still playing with the Iranian mullahs. But meanwhile, we are authorizing and expediting the delivery of essential fuel and food to the regime, and thus becoming co-administrators and physical guarantors of the most cruel and oppressive system of tyranny on the planet.

Not only has the Bush administration gone mum about the evil of the axis-of-evil’s only non-deterrable member, but the issue of North Korean human rights hasn’t earned so much as a soundbite from any presidential candidate. Silence on this issue is not only an ideological failure, but a strategic one. As Hitchens says, “That’s why Lefkowitz was right to speak up and right to imply that it is within the terms of his brief to do so.”

A couple of weeks ago, Gordon G. Chang wrote about the State Department’s shameful disavowal of its special envoy for human rights in North Korea, Jay Lefkowitz. (Lefkowitz, a COMMENTARY contributor, published “Stem Cells and the President” in our January issue.) Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Lefkowitz had registered some blunt complaints about the ineffectiveness of the six-party talks to disarm North Korea, and emphasized the failings of South Korea and China in particular. Today in Slate, Christopher Hitchens takes up Lefkowitz’s cause.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had distanced the Bush administration from Lefkowitz’s comments by telling him to stick to human rights and leave the disarmament business to the big shots—in almost those words. Hitchens argues that in the case of North Korea the challenges of human rights and nuclear disarmament are necessarily linked:

The specific method of enslavement north of the border is to consider all citizens to be conscripts as well as serfs, an unprecedented mobilization that in the last resort has every North Korean a robotized soldier. This, in turn, especially given the proximity of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the so-called “demilitarized zone,” compels South Korea to maintain a disproportionate armed force and the United States to commit an extraordinary number of its own troops, ships, and airplanes…Because of famine and exploitation, the average North Korean soldier is now as much as 6 inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart. The struggle—ideological, political, and military—would be more or less over if Pyongyang did not have a thermonuclear capacity and a well-earned reputation for being governed by an unpredictable psychopath who may not understand the concept of self-preservation.

Hitchens goes on to point out the undesirability of a policy that managed to denuclearize North Korea incrementally, through bribes, at the expense of the human rights cause.

Now, this might not matter so much if it were only as irritating and humiliating as the long-drawn-out charade that we played with Saddam Hussein and are still playing with the Iranian mullahs. But meanwhile, we are authorizing and expediting the delivery of essential fuel and food to the regime, and thus becoming co-administrators and physical guarantors of the most cruel and oppressive system of tyranny on the planet.

Not only has the Bush administration gone mum about the evil of the axis-of-evil’s only non-deterrable member, but the issue of North Korean human rights hasn’t earned so much as a soundbite from any presidential candidate. Silence on this issue is not only an ideological failure, but a strategic one. As Hitchens says, “That’s why Lefkowitz was right to speak up and right to imply that it is within the terms of his brief to do so.”

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Re: State Eats One Of Its Own

Gordon, we should note that Jay Lefkowitz, this country’s special envoy on human rights in North Korea and the subject of your shocking post this morning, is a COMMENTARY author whose eye-opening article in the January issue, “Stem Cells and the President,” has been much remarked-upon.

Gordon, we should note that Jay Lefkowitz, this country’s special envoy on human rights in North Korea and the subject of your shocking post this morning, is a COMMENTARY author whose eye-opening article in the January issue, “Stem Cells and the President,” has been much remarked-upon.

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The First Movie of the Post Stem-Cell Debate Era!

The highly entertaining sci-fi flick I Am Legend stars Will Smith as the last man left in New York City (and maybe on earth) after a cure for cancer mutates into a virus that kills 90 percent of the population and turns 99 percent of the remnant into flesh-eating zombies, is likely to be the big winner at the Christmas box office. Those who enjoy tracking blockbusters more for their allegory than their grosses, though, may relish the movie’s timing because of its surprising subtext about how religion and science can co-exist.

Call this the first movie of the post-stem cell-debate era. After last month’s wonderful news that genetically matched stem cells could be developed without embryos, liberals were flummoxed (and maybe angered) by the news that, when it comes to medical ethics and science, Bush-era America actually could walk and chew gum at the same time. No embryos means no embryo destruction, therefore no moral problems with the stem-cell research of the future.

Smith plays a soldier/scientist immune to the virus that has destroyed humanity and turned Manhattan into a postapocalyptic wasteland where deer and other wildlife run free but there is no sign of another human being. In a twist on the grimy despair of last year’s similar Children of Men, Smith’s character has hopes of using his own blood to concoct a serum that will reverse the effects of the virus and turn the zombies back into ordinary people. He’s an atheist who believes that science, and science alone, holds the key to the future. But in a third-act twist, it turns out that religion and blind faith will have equally important roles to play if there is to be a cure–you might also use the word “salvation”–for humanity.

The highly entertaining sci-fi flick I Am Legend stars Will Smith as the last man left in New York City (and maybe on earth) after a cure for cancer mutates into a virus that kills 90 percent of the population and turns 99 percent of the remnant into flesh-eating zombies, is likely to be the big winner at the Christmas box office. Those who enjoy tracking blockbusters more for their allegory than their grosses, though, may relish the movie’s timing because of its surprising subtext about how religion and science can co-exist.

Call this the first movie of the post-stem cell-debate era. After last month’s wonderful news that genetically matched stem cells could be developed without embryos, liberals were flummoxed (and maybe angered) by the news that, when it comes to medical ethics and science, Bush-era America actually could walk and chew gum at the same time. No embryos means no embryo destruction, therefore no moral problems with the stem-cell research of the future.

Smith plays a soldier/scientist immune to the virus that has destroyed humanity and turned Manhattan into a postapocalyptic wasteland where deer and other wildlife run free but there is no sign of another human being. In a twist on the grimy despair of last year’s similar Children of Men, Smith’s character has hopes of using his own blood to concoct a serum that will reverse the effects of the virus and turn the zombies back into ordinary people. He’s an atheist who believes that science, and science alone, holds the key to the future. But in a third-act twist, it turns out that religion and blind faith will have equally important roles to play if there is to be a cure–you might also use the word “salvation”–for humanity.

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The Real Power of Stem Cells

A week ago, two teams of scientists announced they had successfully produced the equivalent of human embryonic stem cells by “reprogramming” skin cells, without the need to use embryos. It was a much hoped-for and anticipated development, and very welcome news. And the transformation of the stem cell debate in just the few days since has been nothing short of amazing.

Witness this article in yesterday’s New York Times. Nothing like it could have been written before last Tuesday—and not just because of the way it begins to speak of the stem cell debate in the past tense, but because of the honesty with which it speaks of the realities and limits of stem cell research: “Scientists still face the challenge of taking that abundant raw material and turning it into useful medical treatments, like replacement tissue for damaged hearts and brains,” the Times notes, “and that challenge will be roughly as daunting for the new cells as it has been for the embryonic stem cells.

That daunting challenge, and the likelihood that, quite apart from one federal funding policy or another, treatments using such cells will likely not be possible for many years (if ever), were never much on the lips of Times reporters and editorialists in the past.

The article even notes that until last week’s announcement, there was only one way to create genetically matched pluripotent stem cells:

Some scientists have been trying to make disease-specific embryonic cells by creating a cloned embryo of a person with the disease. But that effort requires women to undergo sometimes risky treatments to donate their eggs.

In the past, when the paper has mentioned this technique, they did not admit so frankly that human cloning was involved or that women were at risk. Just this past June, speaking of exactly the same method, the Times noted that researchers:

want to develop embryonic stem cells by nuclear transfer, the replacement of an egg nucleus with one from an adult cell. A major benefit of nuclear transfer would be to walk a patient’s cell back to an embryonic state so disease processes could be better understood.

They dared not call it cloning, or mention any drawbacks. Only now that science may have provided a way around the ethical (and therefore political) dilemma, and that, as the godfather of embryonic stem cell research James Thomson told the Times last weekend “a decade from now, [the stem cell wars] will be just a funny historical footnote,” can they speak openly about what they had so long been advocating.

It is to Thomson’s credit (and to that of all the many other stem cell researchers quoted in the press this past week) that he’s willing to speak frankly about how momentous this advance may really be. He’s willing, too, to see the consequences for the political fight over stem cells—and they are good consequences for both sides of the argument: the science can go forward without raising ethical concerns. (Unsurprisingly, some of the politicians involved in the fight seem to want the argument more than the science.)

It seems, though, that even the New York Times—which has been tenaciously partisan and frankly dishonest in its advocacy for embryo-destructive research in the past decade—now sees that the fight may be drawing to a close, and it’s time to put away the word games and speak openly about what has always been at stake. If these new cells can make the Times do that, maybe they really are a panacea.

A week ago, two teams of scientists announced they had successfully produced the equivalent of human embryonic stem cells by “reprogramming” skin cells, without the need to use embryos. It was a much hoped-for and anticipated development, and very welcome news. And the transformation of the stem cell debate in just the few days since has been nothing short of amazing.

Witness this article in yesterday’s New York Times. Nothing like it could have been written before last Tuesday—and not just because of the way it begins to speak of the stem cell debate in the past tense, but because of the honesty with which it speaks of the realities and limits of stem cell research: “Scientists still face the challenge of taking that abundant raw material and turning it into useful medical treatments, like replacement tissue for damaged hearts and brains,” the Times notes, “and that challenge will be roughly as daunting for the new cells as it has been for the embryonic stem cells.

That daunting challenge, and the likelihood that, quite apart from one federal funding policy or another, treatments using such cells will likely not be possible for many years (if ever), were never much on the lips of Times reporters and editorialists in the past.

The article even notes that until last week’s announcement, there was only one way to create genetically matched pluripotent stem cells:

Some scientists have been trying to make disease-specific embryonic cells by creating a cloned embryo of a person with the disease. But that effort requires women to undergo sometimes risky treatments to donate their eggs.

In the past, when the paper has mentioned this technique, they did not admit so frankly that human cloning was involved or that women were at risk. Just this past June, speaking of exactly the same method, the Times noted that researchers:

want to develop embryonic stem cells by nuclear transfer, the replacement of an egg nucleus with one from an adult cell. A major benefit of nuclear transfer would be to walk a patient’s cell back to an embryonic state so disease processes could be better understood.

They dared not call it cloning, or mention any drawbacks. Only now that science may have provided a way around the ethical (and therefore political) dilemma, and that, as the godfather of embryonic stem cell research James Thomson told the Times last weekend “a decade from now, [the stem cell wars] will be just a funny historical footnote,” can they speak openly about what they had so long been advocating.

It is to Thomson’s credit (and to that of all the many other stem cell researchers quoted in the press this past week) that he’s willing to speak frankly about how momentous this advance may really be. He’s willing, too, to see the consequences for the political fight over stem cells—and they are good consequences for both sides of the argument: the science can go forward without raising ethical concerns. (Unsurprisingly, some of the politicians involved in the fight seem to want the argument more than the science.)

It seems, though, that even the New York Times—which has been tenaciously partisan and frankly dishonest in its advocacy for embryo-destructive research in the past decade—now sees that the fight may be drawing to a close, and it’s time to put away the word games and speak openly about what has always been at stake. If these new cells can make the Times do that, maybe they really are a panacea.

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Stem Cells in New Jersey

On Tuesday, New Jersey voters defeated a state ballot referendum that would have put $450 million of taxpayer funds into stem cell research. It was a rare electoral victory for opponents of embryo-destructive research—made all the more surprising by its Garden State venue. New Jersey, after all, has some of the most extreme pro-cloning and embryo research laws in the country, explicitly permitting, for instance, the creation of cloned embryos and their development in the womb until the moment of birth.

In search of an explanation, the New York Times offers up the absence of a massive media campaign with deep pockets, of the sort employed in similar referenda in California in 2004 and in Missouri in 2006. In both cases, tens of millions of dollars were spent on ads attempting to persuade voters of the promise of embryonic stem cells—often using starkly dishonest and distorted arguments.

In Missouri, for instance, the advertising campaign coined the clever term “early stem cell research” (as in this ad) to avoid using the word “embryo,” and asserted that embryonic stem cells would cure Alzheimer’s (despite a near consensus to the contrary among researchers). In California, where a similar effort resulted in the creation of a $3 billion stem cell institute in 2004, pre-election deceptions about how the project would work continue to plague the new institute, which has now gone through several difficult leadership changes. Most recently, the institute hired as its director an Australian scientist who was caught lying to the Australian parliament in 2002 in order to obtain support for stem cell research.

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On Tuesday, New Jersey voters defeated a state ballot referendum that would have put $450 million of taxpayer funds into stem cell research. It was a rare electoral victory for opponents of embryo-destructive research—made all the more surprising by its Garden State venue. New Jersey, after all, has some of the most extreme pro-cloning and embryo research laws in the country, explicitly permitting, for instance, the creation of cloned embryos and their development in the womb until the moment of birth.

In search of an explanation, the New York Times offers up the absence of a massive media campaign with deep pockets, of the sort employed in similar referenda in California in 2004 and in Missouri in 2006. In both cases, tens of millions of dollars were spent on ads attempting to persuade voters of the promise of embryonic stem cells—often using starkly dishonest and distorted arguments.

In Missouri, for instance, the advertising campaign coined the clever term “early stem cell research” (as in this ad) to avoid using the word “embryo,” and asserted that embryonic stem cells would cure Alzheimer’s (despite a near consensus to the contrary among researchers). In California, where a similar effort resulted in the creation of a $3 billion stem cell institute in 2004, pre-election deceptions about how the project would work continue to plague the new institute, which has now gone through several difficult leadership changes. Most recently, the institute hired as its director an Australian scientist who was caught lying to the Australian parliament in 2002 in order to obtain support for stem cell research.

These are just a few of the countless examples of exaggeration and outright deception in the political fight for embryonic stem cell funding. Recall, for instance, John Edwards’s promise in the 2004 presidential campaign that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

Such tactics have lent something of the stench of the snake oil salesman to stem cell advocacy, and this has clearly had an effect. Opponents of the 2006 Missouri initiative found in the closing days of the race that pointing out the dishonesty of the initiative’s supporters was the most effective arrow in their quiver, and when they began to focus their energies on that case they very nearly defeated the effort.

Opponents of the New Jersey referendum learned that lesson. Referring to New Jersey governor Jon Corzine (who invested $150,000 of his own money in the ballot initiative campaign), one commercial run by opponents showed a slick salesman enticing viewers with “Governor Feelgood’s Embryonic Stem Cell Elixir; just $450 million—why, that’s practically free!”

Another ad put the matter bluntly. The referendum, it said, “is about taking your tax dollars for something that Wall Street and the drug companies will not invest in.”

Clearly this combination of the whiff of fraud and the specter of waste—rather than ethical objections to the destruction of embryos—brought down the referendum. Garden State voters have not suddenly become pro-lifers. But the tricks and deceptions of stem cell advocates in recent years might just have become all too apparent in New Jersey.

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Stem-Cell Politics, Then and Now

Embryonic stem-cell research first became possible with human cells in 1998, and became a political issue immediately thereafter. To derive the cells, researchers had to destroy human embryos, which drew strong opposition from people (like me) who believe that nascent human lives should not be treated as raw materials for research.

Just a few months after the first human stem-cell experiments, President Clinton assigned his board of bioethics advisors, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), to consider the issues involved. Their report, published in 1999, has helped ever since to define the Democrats’ approach to the issue. In light of the headlines today about a new way to produce stem cells without destroying embryos, that report is worth another look.

The commission made a point of taking into account the ethical issues raised by embryo-destructive research. “In our judgment,” the report concluded, “the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.”

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Embryonic stem-cell research first became possible with human cells in 1998, and became a political issue immediately thereafter. To derive the cells, researchers had to destroy human embryos, which drew strong opposition from people (like me) who believe that nascent human lives should not be treated as raw materials for research.

Just a few months after the first human stem-cell experiments, President Clinton assigned his board of bioethics advisors, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), to consider the issues involved. Their report, published in 1999, has helped ever since to define the Democrats’ approach to the issue. In light of the headlines today about a new way to produce stem cells without destroying embryos, that report is worth another look.

The commission made a point of taking into account the ethical issues raised by embryo-destructive research. “In our judgment,” the report concluded, “the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.”

At the time, there were no such alternatives. The NBAC’s conclusion was taken (and certainly intended) as an endorsement of embryo-destructive stem-cell research, which quickly became the view of the Clinton administration and of American liberals more generally. But the big stem-cell story of the past two years has been the emergence of precisely those “less morally problematic alternatives” imagined by the commission.

The news this morning deals with the most promising and significant advance yet on that front. Scientists at MIT and in Japan have managed to coax regular skin cells (in mice) to become cells that seem to have the abilities and characteristics of embryonic stem cells. If this pans out in human cells, it would mean that the benefits of embryonic stem cells could be attainable without the ethical (and political) drawbacks of embryo-destructive research.

This is just the latest in a series of such developments over the past two years. But the advocates of such research have not yet decided how to handle this new trend. Congressional Democrats, persuaded that stem cells are a powerful political winner for them, talked down the alternatives at first, insisting they were scientifically unworkable or unnecessary. But as more scientific publications have emerged enlarging on these alternatives, they have changed their strategy, attempting to co-opt the new alternatives into their effort to fund embryo-destructive research. A bill being considered in the House today (and which has already passed the Senate) would use taxpayer dollars to encourage the on-going destruction of embryos from IVF clinics for their stem cells, but at the same time would also fund the emerging alternatives.

The internal contradiction is stark: the bill stokes the controversy over stem cells even as it funds new techniques that might quiet it. President Bush has pledged to veto the bill because it violates the principles behind his stem-cell funding policy, and the Congress seems unlikely to muster the votes to override his veto. So the political status quo won’t change, but the state of the science is clearly pulling in the opposite direction from the Democrats’ political strategy.

Developments like the one making news today could (in time) mean the end of the stem-cell debate, and an end that lets everyone win: the research would advance without human embryos being harmed. In light of the news this morning, it’s time for the Democrats to rediscover the long-forgotten last clause of the Clinton commission’s stem-cell recommendation.

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