Bestiality… In his summer 2001 address to the nation, President Bush explained that he was putting into place a new policy of limiting federal support for embryonic stem cell research to a handful of existing cell lines, promising that this would allow scientists “to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line.” Turns out, however, that his policy does lead to the crossing of a fundamental–and rather gross–moral line, though not the one he was worried about.

According to the LA Times, a study released yesterday by researchers at the University of California San Diego and the Salk Institute shows that all the stem cell lines approved by the president are contaminated with mouse DNA. The reason is that these cells were propagated in Petri dishes filled with mouse cells, calf blood serum, and other lovely animal byproducts meant to induce the human stem cells to grow. That this medium might have tainted the stem cells was something scientists openly worried about at the time the White House was formulating its policy. The new study merely confirms that fear, showing that the stem cells incorporated a type of sialic acid that is common in many mammals but isn’t produced by humans. Apparently, this doesn’t mean that anyone treated with such cells would sprout a tail and long whiskers. Rather, the human body’s immune system would notice the foreign substance and destroy the stem cells, rendering the cells useless as therapies to fight Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

The Times describes this discovery as a “setback” to the president’s stem cell policy. In reality, it’s really more like a final, complete repudiation of an idea that was pragmatically dubious from the beginning, but pushed forward anyway for political and ideological reasons and presented with an air of moral seriousness. Which is to say, it was typical Bush administration policy.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.