Whispers as Loud as Shouts


Los Angeles Times

February 6, 2005

Was that a slightly conciliatory tone in President Bush's State of the Union comments on stem cell research? The president seemed (maybe) to be (possibly) opening the door to broader federal funding of medical research based on fertilized human eggs.

Only one day earlier, a senior Vatican official who is the pope's household theologian said condom use might have a legitimate role in preventing the spread of AIDS. That came shortly after Pope John Paul II, though denigrating the use of condoms to stop AIDS transmission, stopped short of forbidding it. Education, chastity and faithfulness, the pope said, are "necessary above all other things" to prevent AIDS. But he didn't say they were the only things, and some Vatican watchers find that significant.

Generally, leaders are better off saying what they really mean. But at times, softening can represent strength and lack of clarity can mean progress.

Neither Bush nor the ailing pope is in a position to make a full turnaround, even if he wanted to do so. Though Bush spoke only briefly and vaguely last Wednesday about policies toward scientific research, some conservative Christian groups, his key supporters, expressed disappointment that the president didn't take a more forceful swing against embryonic stem cell research.

"We should all be able to agree on some clear standards" for research, Bush said in an implied invitation to an open discussion he has never welcomed before. He then said he wanted to ensure that "human embryos are not created for experimentation," raising hopes of federal funding for stem cell research as long as the cells don't reach the point that most scientists consider an embryo. California's stem cell rules are more permissive. Any flexibility in Bush's position would be welcome.

Similarly, the pope will not simply reverse his stance on condoms. They are firmly banned as a means of birth control, and the Vatican fears their widespread use in AIDS reduction would lead to moral turpitude.

Some Catholic parts of the globe are already brushing aside the Vatican. A spokesman for the Spanish bishops said in January that condoms "have a place in the global prevention of AIDS," a statement that was later repudiated but still caught attention around the globe. The government of Brazil, home to the largest Roman Catholic population in the world, has ignored the Vatican regarding condoms, freely encouraging their use and successfully easing the spread of AIDS. Condoms are "the official Carnaval costume," this year's "king of the Carnaval" announced as the festival kicked off last week.

In a sterner statement the same week, the Vatican official, Cardinal Georges Cottier, said condoms could be used to prevent AIDS when people are "prisoners" of dire circumstance. Condoms, he noted, were invented to prevent transmission of life but they also prevent transmission of death, making their use, in moral terms, the lesser of two evils.

Perhaps Bush is on the path to similarly nuanced thinking. The failure to encourage cures for potentially treatable diseases — through inaction, political posturing or lack of funding — carries its own moral weight.