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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

 
'Stability 3,' copyright 2006 by Tory Byrne ('avolore' at sxc.hu)
It's almost impossible for someone to (a) run for any public office in the United States and (b) avoid stepping on the toes of every single one of the people upon whom he or she depends for success; (a) and (b) are mutually exclusive activities. Raise the stakes by running for a statewide or national office, and the odds against you approach infinity.

The latest warrior in the political trenches to fall upon his own sword is Republican Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and currently a candidate for the GOP 2008 presidential nomination. The sword in question? His stance on embryonic stem cell research.

Here's how Wikipedia describes that stance:
Mitt Romney believes research using human embryos created during fertility treatments is ethical but opposes using federal funds to support it.[65] He opposes research using cloned embryos created by implanting human DNA into donated eggs.[65]

When he ran for governor in 2002, Romney strongly advocated stem-cell research in general terms, and he promised to lobby George W. Bush to embrace such research.[65] During his presidential campaign, however, Romney renounced his 2002 position and said that he now agrees with Bush's decision to ban federal funding for research on excess embryos.[65]
(If you'd rather not see the Wikipedia article, all of those duplicate bracketed links eventually take you to this Boston Globe story from February.)

Okay, so -- for whatever reasons, opportunistic politics or sincere change of heart -- Romney appears to have reversed his position of five years ago.

It's not quite that clear-cut, by the way. Romney's campaign now claims -- indeed, a careful reading of the Wikipedia quote avers -- that his earlier support for embryonic stem cell research is, well, philosophical. He agrees that the need for the research exists. However, he does not agree that this research should be conducted using public monies.

Whether this hair-splitting will sit well with voters at any portion of the spectrum will become obvious only over time. Still, it has led Romney into one uncomfortable corner. According to a Boston Herald article published today:
Despite his “pro-life” campaign pitch, former Gov. Mitt Romney owns stock in two companies involved in embryonic stem cell research, a controversial field of study he previously cited as the reason for his rightward shift on abortion.

Romney holds stock in the biomedical firms Novo Nordisk and Millipore Corp., both of which use human embryos to research cures for chronic diseases, records show.
Whoops!

The Romney campaign's backing-and-filling on this latest news involves pointing out that the stock ownership is in a blind trust. Wikipedia again:
A blind trust is a trust in which the executors or those who have been given power of attorney have full discretion over the assets, and the trust beneficiaries have no knowledge of the holdings of the trust. Blind trusts are generally used when a trustor wishes to keep the beneficiary unaware of the specific assets in the trust, such as to avoid conflict of interest between the beneficiary and the investments. Politicians often place their personal assets (including investment income) into blind trusts, to avoid public scrutiny and accusations of conflicts of interest when they direct government funds to the private sector.
CNN quotes Romney:
My investments have been held in a blind trust, which means I have not directed where they invest nor do I know where they invest... The trustee of the blind trust has said publicly that he will endeavor to make my investments conform with my positions, and I am confident that he will.
Translated, this roughly works out to I have no knowledge or control over where my money is invested. However, in this case, I now know where my money is invested and am exercising control over it. Um, okay...

In appraising the former governor's handling of this situation, the Washington Post went back to Romney's public statements on blind trust and dug up this gem (from his 1994 run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy):
"The blind trust is an age-old ruse," Romney was quoted as saying back then. "You give a blind trust rules. You can say to a blind trust, don't invest in properties which would be in conflict of interest or where the seller might think they're going to get an advantage from me."
The politics of "Gotcha!" really is no basis upon which to assess a candidate's honesty; there are simply too many issues, too many nuanced positions to hold on them, and too many interest groups to whom the candidate must attend. But when candidates run for office, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, they must go with the political realities they have. And when philosophy conflicts with reality -- so long as CNN's got its lens trained on you, and the press is plumbing your public statements -- reality always wins.

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