Bush's stem-cell fumble

Whatever Bush decided, embryos will continue to be destroyed -- so why not use them to save other lives?

Published August 10, 2001 5:37PM (EDT)

President Bush's non-decision on funding for stem-cell research isn't simply the political compromise it's being taken for: It's a moral fumble that hides its essential cowardice behind sanctimonious rhetoric about "vast ethical minefields" and "profound ethical questions."

On the surface, Bush's announcement that he will support federal financing for stem-cell research -- but only on those stem cell "lines" that have already been created from previously destroyed human embryos -- looks like a split-the-difference decision that, while hardly Solomonic in its subtlety, seems to offer something to both sides of this debate. Supporters of the research, which scientists believe offers a revolutionary new opportunity to cure intractable illnesses such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, get to feel relieved that at least some research will be funded. Opponents are supposed to be placated that no further embryos will be destroyed in the cause of medical research.

But that's where the logic of Bush's decision simply falls apart. The fact is that thousands of embryos were destroyed each year before stem-cell research was an option, and thousands will continue to be destroyed each year no matter what Bush decided. These embryos are a byproduct of in vitro fertilization techniques that are in widespread use today by couples who have difficulty conceiving children by natural means. These couples aren't "anti-life"; they're trying to have families. Modern science, in its miracle-working clumsiness, can help them, but excess embryos are an inevitable byproduct. Since there are far more embryos than donors willing or eager to provide wombs for them, even those couples who have qualms about destroying their unwanted embryos aren't often able to find an alternative.

For opponents of stem-cell research, like Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, who feel that destroying embryos is tantamount to murder, the campaign against stem-cell research is a pathetic dodge: If they really feel that way, they should be campaigning to outlaw in vitro fertilization itself. They're not doing that because it's politically suicidal and self-contradictory: Fertility treatment, after all, is just a latter-day means to be fruitful and multiply; what could be more "pro-life"?

Embryos are being destroyed, and will continue to be destroyed, as long as in vitro fertilization is available. Bush's decision doesn't change that. So the only real question is, will these embryos have any meaning or offer anything toward the greater good of humanity? Can anything of value be rescued from their destruction? Can their loss help save other lives?

Stem-cell research actually offers a positive answer to this moral quandary. President Bush could have embraced this opportunity, and still drawn a clear ethical line: There's a difference between embryos created with the intent to make a baby, like the in vitro castoffs, and those produced -- as a private stem-cell lab recently announced it had done -- solely for the purpose of research.

Bush could have taken a courageous stand, drawing a more sensible, and defensible, ethical distinction: not between embryos destroyed in the past and those to be inevitably destroyed in the future, but instead between embryos created with intent to produce life and those created solely to be destroyed for their stem cells.

If intention carries any moral weight, as our laws generally have it, then this is the decision Bush should have made, and could have been applauded for. If intention doesn't make a difference -- and Bush believes that destroying embryos is immoral no matter what the original purpose behind their conception -- then he should have stood in front of the nation Thursday and called for the shutdown of fertility clinics.

Of course, doing so might cost him the next election. And that, not morality, is what's governing his handling of this particular "vast ethical minefield."

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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Stem Cells