Frame Game

Soft Cell

One rule of abortion politics is that the further a pregnancy progresses, the broader the consensus becomes for prohibiting its termination. Some people would ban abortions altogether. Others would ban them after the first trimester. Nearly everyone would ban them in the third. This is why pro-lifers, defeated a decade ago in their efforts to outlaw abortions generally, retreated to the issue of partial-birth abortion. They knew they could gather a consensus by focusing the debate on the last stage of pregnancy.

Stem-cell research has turned that calculus upside down. It has shifted the moral conversation about unborn life from the end of pregnancy to the beginning. In the partial-birth debate, the question was how many people were serious enough about freedom of choice to tolerate the latest, ugliest abortions. In the stem-cell debate, the question is how many people are serious enough about unborn personhood to prohibit the earliest, least recognizable abortions. How many consider an embryo a person with an inviolable right to life, rather than a mere form of human life deserving of limited moral consideration? Not many, it turns out. Not even the president the right-to-life movement worked hard to elect.

Last year in South Carolina, pro-lifers went all out to derail John McCain. Deeming McCain unserious about abortion, they declared George W. Bush the real pro-lifer. But Bush, like his father, had never shown any seriousness about protecting unborn children under the law. He helped pro-lifers chip away at abortion rights but didn’t try to stop the procedure generally. Rather than describe the unborn human as an individual entitled to legal protection, Bush talked about promoting a collective, amorphous “culture” of life. He defended the Republican platform plank calling for a ban on abortions, but he portrayed this as a statement of moral sentiment, not a literal plan of action.

Last night, addressing the nation on stem-cell research, Bush struck an agnostic pose. “The issue is debated within the church, with people of different faiths, even many of the same faith, coming to different conclusions,” he said. “Many people are finding that the more they know about stem-cell research, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions.”

Commenting on the speech afterward, pro-life activists and politicians spun Bush’s statement as an affirmation of the right to life. “He may not have said it directly, but he implied that life begins at conception,” James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, asserted on Larry King Live. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who has led the opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, added, “This is a fundamental question we have to wrestle with: Are these [embryos] people, or are they property? The president clearly said tonight they’re people.”

But Bush said no such thing. In fact, he implied the opposite. “Research on embryonic stem cells raises profound ethical questions, because extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and thus destroys its potential for life,” said Bush. In case anyone missed the word “potential,” Bush used it twice more to describe the embryo’s significance. This position, that the embryo is a potential human being, isn’t meaningless. But from the standpoint of prohibiting abortion or destructive embryo research—or rather, for the purpose of not prohibiting abortion or destructive embryo research—it’s conveniently soft. It’s the position of pro-choicers. It’s the position for which pro-lifers accused McCain of treachery.

From soft premises, Bush drew soft conclusions. It’s “important that we pay attention to the moral concerns raised by” stem-cell research, he vowed, without apparent meaning. The firmness of his adjectives concealed the vagueness of his verbs. “My position on these issues is shaped by deeply held beliefs,” he proclaimed. And what was his deeply held belief about stem-cell research? “I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.” In America and throughout the world—as though the geographic breadth of that tacked-on phrase could fill the emptiness of Bush’s promises to “worry about,” “foster,” and “encourage respect for” life.

Later, Bush vowed not to cross “a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos.” Again, strong adjectives hid weak verbs. The “fundamental moral line” means nothing if the research it prohibits—or rather, the research for which it merely withholds taxpayer funds—remains undefined. Evidently, Bush thinks federal funding of research that uses stem cells already derived from embryo destruction—the compromise he approved—doesn’t “sanction or encourage” such destruction. It’s hard to figure out, after this concession, what meaning remains in the word “sanction.”

To find the substance in Bush’s speech, ask this question: What did he rule out? His only firm negative statement was, “I strongly oppose human cloning.” On stem cells, Bush phrased his decision in the affirmative: “I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines.” It would have been easy to add that no federal funds would be spent on researching other stem-cell lines during his administration. But Bush didn’t say that. He didn’t even rule out the creation of embryos purely for research. He said only that such embryo creation was “deeply troubling” and “should prompt all of us to think through these issues very carefully.”

To cover his retreat, Bush misrepresented the right-to-life viewpoint. One common debating technique is the straw man: You attribute an extreme, indefensible position to your opponent because that position is easier to knock down than your opponent’s more moderate, nuanced position is. Bush did the opposite. Describing the viewpoints presented to him by both sides, he repeatedly softened the right-to-life position so that he could appear to agree with it. He alluded to a pro-life ethicist who had warned him, “One goes with a heavy heart if we use these [embryos].” Go with a heavy heart? No problem. Later, Bush said right-to-lifers believe that “the fact that a living being is going to die does not justify experimenting on it.” That’s true. They also believe that the fact that a living being has died—especially at the hands of another—doesn’t justify such experimentation. But if Bush acknowledged that position, he’d have to admit that he had decided to ignore it.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Is the president pro-life? That depends on what the meaning of “pro-life” is.