In late July, President Bush issued the first veto of his
administration. The president vetoed a bill that would have expanded
stem-cell research into the realm of working on frozen embroyos—i.e.,
on human life. Scientists believe expansion of this research could
result in cures for dread diseases like Alzheimers. The Catholic Church
and other critics warn of breaching ethical boundaries in the quest for
medical advancement. Bush deserves praise not only for being correct on
the issue, but for doing the right thing at personal cost to himself.
veto was not a popular one. Polls showed that about three-quarters of
the American public disapproved of the president’s stand for the
dignity of human life. This is the second time in the last two years
the president has come down on the correct side of a major bioethics
issue. It is also the second time he will suffer for it politically, at
a time when his approval ratings are already very low, and his party
risks losing control of Congress. In both instances, the beneficiaries
of his courage could not vote or speak, while his critics could and
did. And both times, the issue provided revealing insights into the
American political culture.
The first instance came during the
tragic Terri Schiavo case during Holy Week of 2005. A Florida judge
refused the repeated pleas of her parents to re-attach her feeding
tube, and instead deferred to the wishes of her husband who considered
her in a vegetative state. With the case drawing public attention, and
serious questions being raised about the motives of the husband—who had
a large financial stake in his wife’s death—the president took the
highly unusual step of approving a congressional measure to shift the
case to the federal courts for another hearing.
In the end,
the federal judge also allowed the ailing woman to be starved to deat,
but no one could doubt the president, along with his brother, the
governor of Florida, had done what they could to avert the tragedy.
negative public reaction to the Schiavo intervention and the stem-cell
veto raise troubling questions about the prospects of cultural renewal
in our country. When the public sides with a corrupt husband over a
starving woman and her parents, what is one to think? When the public
wants to authorize medical research on living embryos, have we
continued to slouch further towards Gomorrah?
came right on the heels of what seemed to be the seeds of revival. Had
it not been just November of 2004 that exit polls showed “the values
voter” as marking the difference in the Bush-Kerry election? What
I believe the exit polling showing “values” as Bush’s
electoral trump card led to an excess of optimism. Values ranked #1 as
the issue most cited as a concern for voters, but that was only due to
poor questioning, which took “Iraq” and “national security” and divided
them into separate categories, thus splitting the votes of people who
had these intertwined issues foremost on their minds. Furthermore, much
of the media overreaction to this exit poll came because the same media
had spent the previous three election cyclesunderrating the political
power of values–and its ability to deliver a narrow edge to a pro-life
Republican candidate. The elitist press corps, sheltered in New York
and Washington, were so shocked to see that normal people really do
vote on the basis of faith and culture, that they had an overreaction
as to how big the influence really was. Values can tip the balance in a
close election, but–rightly or wrongly–economics and national
security will always be the lead issues.
But the final reason
for why the “values vote” did not translate into political support for
President Bush in these two recent crises is the most important. Values
are not an idea, and not a political doctrine. Values are a sentiment—a
good and noble one to be sure, but just a sentiment nonetheless.
Sentiment provides the raw material for a moral culture, but if it is
not backed up with sound ideas and reasoning, it won’t sustain when the
pressure is on.
The wave of support from the values vote comes
when issues such as partial-birth abortion, homosexual marriage, and a
general outpouring of patriotic feeling come to the forefront. All of
these were in place in the election of 2004. But when the issue shifts
to questions like bioethics, the values vote goes the wrong way. It’s
not that the values voter has suddenly morphed into an evil person.
Quite the contrary, I think in cases like the situations above, they
fall prey to the types of errors that afflict basically good people.
values voter is motivated by appeals that can be framed as
“common-sense” thinking, neither the work of the extreme Left or the
Religious Right. When the president resists the horrors of
partial-birth abortion or proclaims that marriage is between a man and
a woman, he is speaking in a language this voter will hear. But on
bioethics, the Culture of Death has had success in framing their case
as the “common-sense” one. They argue that froznen embryos are not
going to become human life–so why not perform the research and perhaps
find a cure for Alzheimers? They argue that Terri Schiavo no longer has
quality of life, so why bother letting her continue on? One can
recognize the errors in these statements, and still acknowledge that in
a political world driven by thirty-second sound-bites, they will hit
home with a voter who has good values, but not yet been exposed to the
sound reasoning that undergirds Catholic doctrine on these issues.
is at the level of local churches and the grass-roots—not the level of
presidential politics–that the healthy wave of sentiment for strong
values has to be translated into sound thinking and judgement.
Grass-roots culture is where most people get their information and have
their ideas formed. And politics follows culture, not vice-versa. The
flower children of the 1960s transformed culture within twenty years,
but still had to live through the Reagan era, before electing one of
their own in Bill Clinton. The movement for restoration will have to do
the same. Much progress has been made in recent years, and that helped
in November 2004. But until the moment of cultural triumph comes, we’ll
have to content ourselves with political influence that works on the
edges, and counting on a few key signature moments like the stem-cell
veto to keep the fight alive.
The president reminded America
of what the stakes were, when he delivered the veto message in the
presence of children who were born after having been frozen embroyos–
“These boys and girls are not spare parts…"
remind us of what is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of
research. They remind us that we all begin our lives as a small
collection of cells…
this bill were to become law, American taxpayers would, for the first
time in our history, be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of
human embryos, and I'm not going to allow it.”
(George W. Bush, 7/19/2006)
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