Seriously Underplayed Story of the Day

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If I may interrupt the very enjoyable festival of reading other people’s email for a moment, there was a remarkably under-reported development yesterday that demonstrates, I think, President Bush’s loss of authority in the past few months. Elias Zerhouni, the head of the National Institutes of Health, testified to a Senate committee that he favors a lifting of Bush’s limit on stem cell research. It leaves us fighting disease (and foreign competition) “with one hand tied behind our back,” Zerhouni said. Clearly prepared to say what he said, Zerhouni offered a vivid metaphor: he called stem cells the “software of life.”

This story did not seem to make the paper editions of either the New York Times or the Washington Post. (The Wall Street Journal had a very short blurb on page one and no longer story.) All the papers had it on-line, of course. But isn’t this a pretty big deal? Bush has used his veto only once: to kill a bill that would have lifted the near-ban on federally funded stem cell research that he imposed in 2001. He feels strongly about it, apparently. Zerhouni, like the US Attorneys, serves at the pleasure of the president. And the president cannot be pleased. Either Zerhouni is confident that Bush won’t fire him, or he doesn’t care.

Zerhouni’s strong endorsement of embryonic stem cell research–and especially his emphasis on urgency–puts the lie to several preposterous defenses of the Bush restriction: 1) that it isn’t really a ban because it only applies to federally funded research (the terms of the restriction make it almost impossible, or at least extremely and pointlessly costly, to do privately funded stem cell research if you also accept federal funding for other research, as all major medical research facilities do); 2) that adult stem cells are just as promising (they’re not); and so on.

I should add that I have an interest here: a malady (Parkinson’s) for which stem cells are especially promising. One of the most ridiculous things sometimes suggested by the other side in this dispute is that advocates of embryonic stem cell research are motivated more by a desire to slaughter embryos than by hope for what might come from the research. Let me assure them that the interest in the research is pretty intense and definitely sincere.