Former President Bill Clinton’s recent comments about embryo fertilization and stem cell research have been “confused” and call into question his credibility on the issue, two bioethicists say. The president has made interview remarks incorrectly implying that embryos are not fertilized.
Critics also wondered why Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the medical commentator and former Surgeon General nominee who interviewed Clinton, did not correct the former president in their discussion of human embryonic stem cell research.
Pro-life advocates around the country have been rallying against President Barack Obama’s March 9 decision to allow more government funding for controversial human embryonic stem cell research. The research destroys human embryos for their stem cells, which are believed to have the potential for major therapeutic cures.
Clinton has defended allowing government funding of embryonic stem cell research, calling it “a pro-life decision” to use fertility clinics’ frozen embryos for medical research. However, he has consistently remarked that human embryos are not fertilized.
In fact, mammalian fertilization takes place when sperm and egg fuse to form a new embryonic organism.
Speaking at a February Virginia Democratic fundraiser, the former president had declared, "We have won the great culture war that has divided America for 40 years. But before we celebrate too much, we have to realize that people hired us to lead."
A week after the Virginia fundraiser, Clinton appeared on Larry King Live to talk about President Obama’s plans to fund human embryonic stem cell research. On the program Clinton told Larry King:
“...if [embryos] are never going to be used to be fertilized, to bring a life into being, then I think making them available for medical research is the pro-life position and I honestly don't understand -- I would understand it if we were going and raiding stem cell banks, where these stem cells were going to be used to actually fertilize eggs and have babies.”
On March 9, Obama signed an executive order allowing government funding for research that could destroy up to 400,000 embryos “left over” from in-vitro fertilization procedures.
Clinton again appeared on Larry King Live on Wednesday to discuss his support for Obama’s embryonic stem cell research decision. Speaking with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Clinton incorrectly referred to embryos as “unfertilized” a total of six times.
Dr. Gupta opened the interview by asking “Is this going to be the abortion of the next generation? Or are people going to come around?”
“We’ll work it through. If—particularly if it’s done right. If it’s obvious that we’re not taking embryos that can under any conceivable scenario would be used for a process that would allow them to be fertilized and become little babies…then I think the American people will support this.”
Dr. Gupta did not comment on the president’s error.
Clinton further tried to justify his position, saying the research should proceed “because [these embryos] are not going to be fertilized.”
He then tried to characterize Obama’s decision as a pro-life policy, adding:
“I believe the American people believe it’s a pro-life decision to use an embryo that’s frozen and never going to be fertilized for embryonic stem cell research…”
Later in the interview, President Clinton advised President Obama and his scientific committees “to be really careful to make sure if they don't want a big storm to be stirred up here, that any of the embryos that are used clearly have been placed beyond the pale of being fertilized before their use.”
Clinton’s use of words could be explained if he meant to say “implanted” instead of “fertilized.” Many pro-life bloggers have raised concerns that Clinton’s confusion of the words “fertilized” and “implanted” is a tactical political move, which attempts to alter the meaning of embryo to confuse an already misguided public.
Concluding the interview, Clinton expressed appreciation that President Obama is sending a signal to the scientific community that this issue is going to be less politicized in the future.
Jennifer Miller, a bioethicist who specializes in beginning of life ethics and serves as Executive Director of Bioethics International, discussed Clinton’s comments with CNA.
Clarifying that there is no debate in the scientific community about what an embryo is, Miller explained an embryo as “an egg that has been fertilized with sperm.” The only way for an embryo to become unfertilized is “if you kill it,” she said.
Miller, whose organization educates on medical ethics issues, said she was confused by Clinton’s “misguided” comments and suggested that the former President may just be “confused.”
“When I work with the general public, I find that they do not understand the difference between embryonic and adult stem cells and that’s very problematic,” she explained.
Father Thomas Berg, L.C., Executive Director for the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, CNA columnist, and frequent contributor to The New York Times, National Review Online, and National Catholic Register also commented on Clinton’s comments, telling CNA:
“I’m not sure what to think. I think that it is appalling that Dr. Gupta did not correct him. That’s an egregious oversight to let that slip. It does raise very serious questions about the credibility of both of these individuals. It’s just nonsense; an embryo is a product of fertilization, whether naturally or through in vitro. At the very least it leaves me scratching my head.”
When questioned about Clinton’s word choice of “we’ll work it through,” Fr. Berg expressed concern, but not surprise.
“Maybe it was unfortunate word choice again,” he told CNA, said the phrase “work it through” means embryonic stem cell research advocates will work through “the American media and into the American mindset and rely on the media and on the liberal political pundits and massage it into the American mindset. I can definitely see that happening.”
Responding to Clinton’s characterization of human embryonic stem cell research as “pro-life,” Berg said:
“I want to assume this is a terrible gaffe on his part. The only way to describe that as pro-life is to believe that the discarded embryos are not persons, are not living human beings. If you’re intellectually honest, you have to admit that what you favor is the sacrificing of certain human organisms for the sake of other organisms. There’s nothing pro-life about that.”
Miller also disagreed with Clinton’s charge that this decision was a “pro-life” decision, and expressed concern that Clinton did not recognize that there have been “a lot of breakthroughs in improving the quality of life with adult stem cells and not one breakthrough, not one breakthrough with embryonic stem cell research.”
Berg described this ideological mindset as “part and parcel with the ideological push, whether it is coming from scientists or from President Clinton, to convince Americans that the idea of leftover embryos are somehow different, they don’t have moral value because they haven’t been implanted in the womb, and now this idea that they haven’t been fertilized.”
Unsure if Clinton’s comments were merely a “slip of tongue” or an attempt to water down the pro-life movement, Berg said “it’s part and parcel with this move to coax and cajole Americans into getting comfortable with the idea to sacrificing embryos, as their argument goes ‘are going to die anyway’.”
Berg further warned of a growing tolerance for using human beings as raw materials for scientific research, “This is certainly setting the stage for the ever more aggressive and scientifically daring use of human embryos and even early fetuses, primarily for growing organs and other useful tissues. There’s no doubt in my mind, even though it’s hush-hush, the scientific community will be ever more aggressive in using human embryos for research purposes.”
Arguments advocating unlimited scientific inquiry, Berg warned, “evoke memories of America and Germany in the late 1930s, the fascination with eugenics, and the idea that if you leave science to itself we can improve the human race. If we’re faithful to history, we’ll find that often takes us to a place where we would rather not go.”
Both Berg and Miller noted that Obama actually signed two executive orders: one allowing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and another ending mandated funding for alternatives to embryonic stem cell research.
Berg described the action as “an extremely bold move, which in his own jocular, nonchalant way, [Obama] continued to pursue a very aggressive contra-life agenda.”
Click here to see President Clinton's interview with Dr. Gupta