The National Catholic Review

In a speech to the nation televised from his Texas ranch on Aug. 9, President Bush discussed a moral question that for the past several months has preoccupied both him and many of his fellow citizens: should federal taxpayer dollars be used for research on stem cells that have been derived from living human embryos? Isolating stem cells requires the destruction of the embryos. Ordinarily, these embryos were produced in fertility clinics but were already destined for destruction, since they were not going to be implanted in a mother.

In 1998 a biologist at the University of Wisconsin became the first researcher to isolate embryonic stem cells. Even before that, researchers had requested federal funding for embryo research, but moral objections prevented funding. Since 1995, Congress has included in its annual appropriation bills a ban on the use of federal monies for experimentation with human embryos, and nine states explicitly forbid such experiments.

Today, however, there is aggressive lobbying for federal support for stem cell research, because some scientists specializing in this field and some biotechnology companies think it is possible to cultivate lines, or colonies of these cells and use them to cure such devastating afflictions as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease and even to restore paralyzed organs.

Journalists often talk as though these miraculous stem cell therapies are just around the next bend in the road. In fact, none have yet been developed, and it is not certain that any ever will be. On the other hand, adult stem cells, whose derivation poses no ethical problems, are already being successfully used in therapy. In his speech Mr. Bush noted that the government is spending $250 million this year to support this alternative research on adult and animal stem cells.

Many researchers argue, however, that embryonic stem cell studies are the most promising and should be funded because they may eventually save lives. President Clinton decided that the Congressional ban on funding embryo research would not be violated if support were provided only for stem cell studies, but not for the processes that destroyed embryos to acquire those cells.

Mr. Bush was urged to reaffirm the Clinton policy, but decided instead to limit federal funding to research on the 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines that already exist in laboratories around the world. In these cases, he said, the life-and-death decision has already been made; the embryos have already been destroyed. But no funding will be provided, he said, that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life. For this decision the president is to be commended.

The president’s speech was an admirable overview of the whole question and nicely balanced the importance of scientific research with the importance of the moral concerns that research raises. No doubt, he wants to build a consensus for his decision, so he was wise to emphasize the fact that the tiny embryo has the potential to become a fully developed human life.

The 280 million Americans are not just a continental multitude; they also form a nation. Their unity is far from perfect, but it is real. They are not united by a common descent or a common religion or even by full agreement on the specifics of a moral code. What gives them national cohesion, the glue that holds them together, is a common loyalty to a few great ideals that have shaped a people and their history. It was not by chance that the most famous of the country’s founding documents put Life as the first of the inalienable rights with which the Creator has endowed us.

Most Americans would agree that the potency for life should itself be treated not just with respect, but with reverence. Mr. Bush thinks so too, but in one way his stem cell decision compromises his convictions. In an interview at the ranch the day after the speech, Claire Shipman, an ABC-TV reporter, put the matter to him directly: In funding research on the existing stem cells, is he not effectively condoning the destruction of the embryos that produced those cells? The president had no effective answer.

In any case, it is unlikely that this will be the final word. As additional stem cell lines are isolated, pressure will mount to add them to the permissible list for federally funded research and thus reinstate the Clinton policy. President Bush recognizes the danger of what he called a culture that devalues life, and he has spotlighted the ethical question. It is now Congress’s turn to examine these questions for a debate about embryonic research that has not ended, but only just begun.

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