Bush and Embryonic Stem Cell Research
By Carolyn Gargaro
August 13, 2001
On August 9, President Bush stood before the nation and announced his decision regarding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Drawing a very distinct line in favor of upholding the sanctity of life, Bush refused funding stem cell research that would include destroying or cloning existing embryos. He restricted such funding to the sixty existing stem cell lines from embryos that had already been destroyed.
As one who believes that human life begins at conception, I am against ESCR. If I believe human life, worthy of protection, begins at conception, how can I justify killing embryos for research? Would I justify such research on an 8-week old fetus? No...then where does the justification begin? Would I advocate eliminating the elderly if we found that research on their corpses could yield life saving cures? No I would not. I have a problem with stem cell research that involves destroying embryos. Either human embryos are human beings or they're not, and advocating such research would require me to discard the belief that life begins at conception and define the embryo as something "not quite" human. We don't advocate experimenting on some human beings to alleviate the suffering of others, so if I believe embryos are human, how can I justify using them for experimentation? As stated by Richard Doerflinger, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "I don't think we can weigh a basic moral evil -- the destruction and discarding of human lives -- against supposed benefits to the human race. That way lies the moral approach of a totalitarian society, that thinks it can use and abuse individual human beings in accordance with some grand scheme promising 'the greatest good for the greatest number.'"(1)
If I am against ESCR, wouldn't it follow that I disagree with Bush's decision? Actually, no. I, along with other pro-life individuals and groups, support Bush's decision. My thoughts are similar to those of The National Right to Life. "We commend President Bush’s decision to prevent the federal government from becoming involved in research and experimentation that would require the deliberate destruction of human embryos...While we mourn the lives of those children that were killed to derive the sixty-plus stem cell lines that currently exist, there is nothing that we, as a pro-life community or President Bush can do to restore the lives of those children. Neither President Bush nor the federal government had anything to do with the destruction of those embryos or the establishment of those cell lines."(2)
James C. Dobson, founder and president of Focus on the Family, has offered cautious support. In an August 9 interview on Larry King, he stated that there were some aspects of what the President said that needed to be looked at further, but that he felt the President had "found a good solution for this stage." "Although we grieve the loss of the babies that were sacrificed for the cells that now exist," he stated, "they are now gone, and these cells are there, and I think we can live with that. We're going to have to analyze it in the days ahead." In addition, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, proclaimed Mr. Bush's compromise "an elegant solution to the thorny issue of stem research by firmly protecting the rights of the unborn."(3)
However, while many pro-lifers have voiced support for Bush's decision, it seems that just as many do not agree. Ken Conner, President of the family Research Council stated, "Moral principles are not divisible. Killing human embryos for research is wrong in every instance. The President is only stepping deeper into the moral morass."(4) Other groups, such as Concerned Women for America and the Eagle Cross Alliance, also voiced opposition to Bush's decision.
I know many may wonder how I could support Bush's decision. After all, doesn't this conclusion devalue life, ignore the pro-life position and go against Bush's campaign promise? If Bush had allowed funding for the destruction of future embryos, my answer to all of these questions would be yes. However, he did not, and so my answer is no.
First, while I completely understand those who see using the stem cell lines from already discarded embryos as a passive acceptance of such destruction, I do not believe the decision devalues life. Bush drew a very distinct line. By allowing funding for research on existing stem cells lines from embryos that were already destroyed and can not be brought back, but NOT allowing funds for research which would destroy more embryos, he sent a message that human life is not dispensable, even in its microscopic form. How can anyone not consider Bush pro-life when he adamantly stated in his first address to the Nation, that a microscopic embryo is human life, has value, and should not be destroyed for experimentation?
But those sixty embryos were destroyed specifically for experimentation, so isn't the use of the stem cell lines condoning such destruction? I do not believe so, any more than accepting treatment for hypothermia is condoning Nazi death camp experiments.
Yes, Nazi death camp experiments -- the ultimate example of human rights violations. One such experiment included freezing prisoners to death in tanks of ice water in order to learn how to treat hypothermia. Though the Nazis failed to find a treatment, their data was eventually captured by Allied troops, and allied doctors developed information based on that data which is used today in the treatment of hypothermia.(5) Now, do people refuse hypothermia treatment because the treatment was developed from data collected during horrible Nazi death camp experiments? Obviously the ethics surrounding Nazi death camp experiments isn't an issue that most Americans (pro-life or pro-choice) struggle with -- such experiments are considered abominations. However, the data used to find a treatment for hypothermia is a direct result from experiments done on people specifically to find such a treatment. If using the stem cells from destroyed embryos (embryos no one can ever bring back), while disallowing any more embryo destruction is devaluing life or condoning such killing, then isn't using data from Nazi death camp experiments for medical purposes an even greater showing of disrespect for the value of human life? I doubt anyone would believe that hypothermia treatment is in any way passively condoning the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. At some point, the doctrine of implied complicity in immoral acts must be replaced with reasoned compassion for the living. This point is reached when allowing treatment/research would not promote, and could possibly prevent, additional such evil acts.
It's also important to note that Bush's refusal to federally fund future embryo destruction is relevant to the doctrime of implied complicity. If funding had been extended to include destroying more embryos, then the use of the existing sixty stem cell lines would be, in essence, condoning the "additional evil act" and I would firmly disagree with using those sixty stem cell lines. However, not only can those embryos never be brought back, but Bush's decision stopped federally funding the destruction of the other 100,000 frozen embryos which were candidates for experimentation.
However, I can fully understand the concern of those who believe Bush's decision devalues life and could open the doors for more funding which includes destroying more embryos. As Bonnie Chernin Rogoff, founder of Jews for Life states:
"Since abortion was legalized in 1973, have we ever seen any limits? From early suction to saline, from saline to dilation and evacuation, and partial birth abortion. Next came the harvesting and sale of fetal body parts. These are the reasons I am dismayed by President Bush's decision. I know where it will lead."(6)
Such concerns are valid. Past experience shows that sometimes, if you give an inch, people will take a mile. Couldn't Bush's decision, especially if this research proves extremely promising, open the floodgates and lead towards government funding research that would include destroying dozens, or even hundreds more embryos? The possibility exists, but I believe the flip side to the argument is an even greater possibility. Had Bush not made an exception for the sixty existing stem cell lines, Congress could have very well overridden his decision, seeing it as too radical, and allowed broader funding that included further embryo destruction. In addition, Bush vowed to veto any attempt by Congress to expand federally funded embryonic stem-cell research beyond what he specified.(7)
There is no question that funding further embryo destruction would cross an incredibly unethical line. However, the use of existing stem cell lines isn't an automatic gateway to funding embryo destruction, and disallowing the use of the existing lines wouldn't magically prohibit the government funding embryo destruction in the future. This is the point I referred to earlier with regards to implied complicity in immoral acts, since using the sixty existing stem cell lines does not open to door for further human life destruction, and it may have, in fact, closed the door in the face of "no holds barred" ESCR funding.
If stem cell research proves promising, funding research on additional embryos isn't necessarily a given. Stem cells can be obtained from umbilical cords and placenta, and Bush's insistence on not killing any more embryos for stem cells could push scientists towards using stem cells from these other sources. While a lot of this is hypothetical, it is less hypothetical than the belief that Bush's decision somehow guarantees that the government will soon give carte blanche funding for embryo destruction and experimentation.
As stated earlier, I can fully respect and understand the concerns of those who are worried about Bush's decision, believing that he meant well but made an error in judgment by funding existing embryonic stem cell line research. I can even understand somewhat, those who are now wary of Bush's pro-life stance. However, I must admit to being a bit aghast at those who now lump Bush in with abortionists, and claim that he's a "pro-abortionist" who doesn't care about innocent human life. One radical web site has even added Bush's name to the The Nuremberg Files, a list of people likened to those who carried out those Nazi death camp experiments. I suggest those, whose knee-jerk reactions have lead to their neat little conclusion that Bush's soul should "burn in hell" and that he is guilty of a heinous crime against humanity, add some more names to The Nuremberg Files. Why not add National Right to Life to the list too, as well as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston? After all, they support Bush's decision. However, adding such names wouldn't provide the web site owner with the publicity he so obviously tries to gain.
I have to wonder if those who support the addition of Bush's name to The Nuremberg Files would refuse hypothermia treatment…..?
Isn't Bush breaking his promises though? Didn't Bush promise no ESCR funding? Isn't this another "Read my lips, no new taxes" backpeddle? Again, I don't think so. Bush stated that he opposed federal funding for stem cell research that involved destroying a living human embryo.(8) There is no explanation for giving such a campaign promise other than the respect for life. Bush did keep his promise, as his decision does not involve destroying, or condoning the destruction of human life. Remember: no one can bring back those sixty embryos, and using their stem cell lines isn't condoning their destruction.
Those who support Bush's decision, as well as those who don't, based on legitimate and understandable concerns, should consider that Bush did not take this issue lightly. He spent a great deal of time on research, talking with and listening to numerous people on all sides of the issue. And while many believe Bush's decision was fueled by personal political viability motives, I believe that a complete ban on federal stem cell research funding would have made Bush's political life quite a bit easier. An "all-out" funding ban would have satisfied the pro-life community as a whole, and Bush's political opponents who disagreed are probably the same ones who would disagree with anything except a full-fledged embryonic-stem-cell funding spree.
Results from Bush's very talked about ESCR funding decision are, for now only "what-ifs." No one can really know how this ethical dilemma will play out, and only time will yield the answer to how ESCR will truly affect medicine, ethics, and the continuing debate over the beginning of human life.
This article copyright © 2001 by Carolyn Gargaro and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.
- Mark Hughes' response at PBS Newshour forum
- National Right to Life Press Release August 10, 2001
- "Abortion Foes Split Over Bush's Plan on Stem Cells" By Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, August 12, 2001
- Family Research Council Press Release, August 9, 2001 at:
- "Medical Cannibals: The Moral Implications of Fetal Tissue Vaccines" By Steven Kellmeyer
- "President Bush's Split Cell Decision" by Bonnie Chernin Rogoff, August 10, 2001
- Bush Warns He Would Veto Any Wider Stem-Cell Approach, Reuters, August 13, 2001
- "Bush's Stance May Affect Research" by Martha Stoddard, Lincoln Journal Star