I want to tell you a story. You may draw your own moral.
Some of you may be old enough to remember that a ban on federal funding for research using tissue taken from aborted fetuses was a big deal in the Reagan and Bush, Sr., administrations. Then came William Jefferson Clinton and, with the cooperation of Congress, that ban on federal funding was lifted in 1993. The NIH could fund research using tissue from aborted children. At the time the big hype was for treatment of Parkinson's disease. That promise has turned out to be a complete dud.
The National Right to Life Committee reported faithfully on this subject and consistently opposed such funding, contending that it normalized abortion and made women think that perhaps they could "do some good" by having their child killed. In fact, NRLC continued to voice such opposition even after 1993.
In 1994, when the Parkinson's hype was at its height, we find Douglas Johnson of NRLC saying in no uncertain terms, "Our position hasn't changed. We're opposed to abortion-dependent fetal tissue transplants."
NRLC's archives indices of its newsletter contain clickable links only beginning in 1998. In 1999, we find the following standard statement on the subject:
Many pro-life advocates object to the use of taxpayer funds for fetal-tissue research. For instance, they say that scientists might become dependent on such tissue simply because of the availability of it. Furthermore, they say, because women who have made a decision to undergo an abortion now may donate their fetus for research, the social, ethical, and moral stigma attached to the act is reduced because the patients believe they ultimately are doing something good.
In 2000, NRLC still apparently didn't think there was no point in talking about the subject, or that we should move on to other issues. Here is an article on an attempted state ban on such research (not just on funding, but on the research itself) in Nebraska, that says,
We have stressed until we're blue in the face that no pro-life/pro-family group is opposed to legitimate medical research, but that we adamantly oppose extracting tissue from babies killed by induced abortion for that research.
In the same year, we find an article called, unambiguously, "Fetal Tissue Harvesting: An Ethical Free-fall," in which ethical arguments for and against fetal tissue use are expressly discussed and the pro-life position made clear:
Defenders of the use of fetal tissue often advance two lines of argument. One, that fetal tissue transplantation is merely an extension of organ donation, a long and honored form of medical altruism. Opponents of the use of fetal tissue, however, counter that organ donation arises from tragedies we try to prevent: fatal accidents or murder. Abortion, on the other hand, is an elective choice in our society and many affirm it as an absolute right.
A second point to be made in support of the use of fetal tissue is the "let's not let it go to waste" sentiment, in which even those who profess to be troubled by elective abortion see the benefit of salvage in making a contribution to science with material that would otherwise be discarded. This inevitably raises the specter of other ill-gotten medical data, such as the human experimentation under the Third Reich or the Japanese cold- exposure data extracted from murderous experiments on Asian prisoners of war.
However, there is a further deeply troubling aspect attached to the unwarranted aura of success that surrounds the practice of fetal tissue transplantation. A 1995 survey by the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto found that, among women who would consider having an abortion, 17% would be more likely to undergo an abortion if fetal tissue could be donated for medical use.
And then, something changed. My careful search of the NRLC archives indices from 2001 on has been unable to turn up a single further article in which such statements were made. We find a few articles reporting on the failure of the Parkinson's experiments--for example here and here, in 2001, and one brief similar one in 2002. After that, not even a mention until this brief notice in 2006 debunking some Chinese claims of success using transplanted fetal tissue. But from 2001 on, while the ethical disapproval is implicit in NRLC's very desire to point out that such research is failing to provide treatments, never again--that I can find--after 2000 do we find an express discussion of the ethical issue or an express statement of the usual pro-life arguments against it, nor do we find any discussion of federal funding.
Well, some of you may remember the election of 2000. NRLC whipped its members soundly into line to vote for George W. Bush. I could link a tedious number of articles, but you can find them yourself, beginning as early as 1999 and continuing through 2000, using language familiar to us all, telling hypothetical reluctant members why they must not be purists, why they must support Bush, and so forth. The hesitations to do so arose from a number of sources, including Bush's support for legal abortion in cases of rape and incest and also his curious hesitation to talk about the issue at all. As far as anyone knew, he accepted the pro-life position on federal funding for fetal tissue research. (In fact, a later critic said that he had campaigned on opposition to it.) But there were worries--worries NRLC slapped down as unworthy of practical men. One of their reasons in several articles for their urgency was the possibility that if Bush were not supported in the Republican primary, the nomination might be won by John McCain.
Then, in 2002, word appeared briefly on the Internet: Bush's NIH had funded research using stem cells derived from aborted fetuses. Rather to everyone's surprise, it turned out that Bush's famous Aug. 9, 2001 "line in the sand" applied only to stem cells derived from unimplanted embryos, not to stem cells derived from aborted fetuses. There was no limit on federal funding for those stem cells to children killed prior to Aug. 9, 2001.
NRLC came out in full defense mode. Their defense was two-pronged. First, they argued that the Bush NIH's "hands were tied" by the 1993 legislation permitting federal funding for aborted fetal tissue research. More importantly, and to head off the obvious question ("Then why doesn't Bush, and why don't you, try to get that legislation changed?"), they implied that Bush was right not simply to fund the research as (they said) required by law but to do nothing to urge that the state of the law be changed. The new worry was...wait for it...embryonic stem-cell research. That was the new focus, and that was where the energy should go, what with the possibility of "embryo farms" and what-not. Evidently, vocal and active opposition to federal funding for fetal tissue research was just so nineties.
And so, the articles stopped. The argument stopped. The discussion stopped. It was something we didn't talk about anymore. There will never again be a presidential candidate who will be asked by the major U.S. pro-life organization to make it clear in his campaign that he opposes the use of federal funds for fetal tissue research. The organization changed its priorities.
So, what about embryonic stem-cell research? That, after all, was Douglas Johnson's urgent reason for ditching the issue of fetal tissue research. That was the new thing, the dangerous thing, the thing we had to concentrate on. And now, NRLC eagerly supports a candidate who has always openly and vocally supported federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
I leave it to the reader to ask himself the obvious question about what might happen next.