Bioethics is fast becoming one of the most important spheres of public policy and heated cultural controversy. Indeed, bioethical issues will be at the heart of the 2004 Presidential election and an important factor in many Congressional and state political contests.

Readers of Crux may recall that the first major public policy controversy faced by President George W. Bush was whether to permit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). This should not have been an issue. Federal law prohibits taxpayer money funding destructive embryo research. But President Bill Clinton, beguiled by the hyped promises that ESCR could soon lead to miracle medical cures for degenerative conditions, found a way around the law by ordering federal funding for ESCR after the stem cell lines had been extracted, and so long as the destroyed embryos had been leftovers from in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments that would otherwise have been discarded.

Bush suspended Clinton’s order as soon as he took office, and after months of study and reflection, issued a revised directive in August 2001 that restricted federal funding of ESCR to cell lines already in existence. Bush’s approach, bitterly resented by the biotechnology industry, the bioethics establishment, is now a significant issue in the Presidential campaign. If Bush loses the election, look for the new President to permit full federal funding for ESCR. This could also include an order permitting taxpayer support for research into human somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) cloning, which now viewed by the bioethics establishment to be merely another form of ESCR.

The presidential election may also decide whether the United States outlaws all human cloning. There are currently two competing approaches to regulating human cloning competing for dominance in the Congress and in some state legislatures. The first, would outlaw human SCNT altogether; the second would explicitly authorize cloning for research purposes but prohibit the birth of cloned babies.

The total ban has already twice passed the House of Representatives in strong bi-partisan votes. But the companion bill in the United States Senate (Brownback/Landrieu) is in suspended animation because it lacks the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

President Bush has promised to sign the ban as soon as it reaches his desk. His potential Democrat opponents all endorse Hatch/Feinstein.

At the state level, the legalization-and-partial-ban approach is the law in California and New Jersey. (New Jersey’s law actually permits implantation and gestation of cloned embryos and fetuses through the ninth month.) Similar laws are pending in Maryland and Delaware. In contrast, Arkansas, Michigan, Iowa, and South Dakota now outlaw all human cloning. If the federal legislative impasse continues, look for the human cloning debate to become centered in the states.

State funding for cloning research is also being promoted by the biotechnology industry at the state level. Most significantly, there may be a $3 billion bond issue to fund cloning and ESCR research on California’s November ballot. If this pork barrel measure qualifies-petitions are currently being circulated-and passes, the state would be required by the California Constitution to borrow an average of $295 million every year for ten years to fund ESCR and human SCNT research-no matter the condition of the economy or problems that may exist in the state budget.

Human cloning and ESCR are the most high profile bioethical issues facing the country in this election year, but they are not the only ones. Assisted suicide continues to be a matter of significant public debate. In 2001, for example, Attorney General John Ashcroft attempted to prohibit federally controlled substances from being used in physician-assisted suicide. A federal judge in Oregon enjoined his order. The Justice Department appealed and the case is pending. If there is a change in administration, look for the new Attorney General to drop the case.

Terri Schiavo’s case will also be debated in 2004. Schiavo is the profoundly cognitively disabled woman ordered dehydrated to death by court order. Under intense public pressure, Florida’s Legislature passed “Terri’s Law,” under which Governor Jeb Bush suspended the dehydration. Terri’s husband Michael Schiavo-aided and abetted by the ACLU-then sued to have Terri’s Law declared in violation of the Florida Constitution’s right to privacy.

Presidential candidates have begun taking sides in the dispute. No surprise: President Bush supports his brother’s decision. But in a shocker, so does Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT). Former Governor Howard Dean came down on the side of dehydration, as did Congressman Richard Gephardt, who is now out of the race. Current Democrat front-runner Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has refused to take a position.

In the meantime, new legislation has been filed in Florida and Georgia that would create a legal preference in favor of providing tube-supplied food and water to people with serious cognitive incapacities. Look for defenders of the sanctity of life to urge other state legislatures to follow suit and for these proposals to be bitterly opposed by the bioethics and medical establishments.

This brief overview illustrates the prominence that bioethical issues now have in our national discourse. In coming years, this trend will accelerate at breakneck speed. Moreover, bioethics is becoming a matter of international debate. For example the United Nations will vote this year whether to call on member nations to outlaw all human cloning.

With the sanctity/equality of human life very much at stake in all of these controversies, the work of the CBC could not be more important. Stay tuned in this space for important information and news on these and other bioethics controversies.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the CBC.