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Stem-Cell Sleight of Hand

Mario Cuomo accuses President Bush of letting religion run his stem-cell policy, but Bush isn't the one ignoring actual science.

9:45 AM, Jun 23, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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FORMER NEW YORK GOVERNOR Mario Cuomo is one slick fella. Like all effective propagandists, he's smooth, articulate, eloquent--and he doesn't let the facts get in his way. Take for example his most recent polemic in the debate over embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). In "Not on Faith Alone," published in the June 20 New York Times (where else?), Cuomo takes President Bush to task for limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to cell lines that do not involve the current destruction of embryos. But rather than mount an honest argument against the president's policy, he instead simply accuses the president of imposing "the dictates of religious orthodoxy" upon a pluralistic society.

To win his debating points, Cuomo puts words into the president's mouth that Bush has never uttered, asserting that "Mr. Bush believes that destroying an embryo is murder." This supposed religious belief forces the president into a stark inconsistency, Cuomo claims, since "he refuses to demand legislation to stop commercial interests that are busily destroying embryos in order to obtain stem cells. If their conduct amounts to murder as the president contends, it is hardly satisfactory for him to say he will do nothing to stop the evil act other than to refuse to pay for it." This is bizarre. On one hand, Cuomo criticizes Bush of being too radical for imposing a minority view steeped in rigid religiosity upon society in limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, while on the other hand he criticizes the president for not being radical enough because he hasn't sought to turn researchers into capital criminals for destroying embryos.

Be that as it may, for Cuomo's argument to have a prayer of working logically, President Bush must have actually asserted that destroying embryos for use in ESCR is murder. But the president never has. (Where were the fact checkers at the New York Times?) What he has asserted repeatedly and consistently is that destroying embryos for use in research is a matter of grave moral consequence. "I believe America must pursue the tremendous possibilities of science" he stated recently, "while fostering and encouraging respect for human life in all its stages." This is not a radical proposition, and it isn't one accepted only by religious people. Indeed, since 1995--six years before Bush assumed office--the official public policy of the United States has been to deny federal funding for scientific research that destroys embryos. This policy, known generically as the "Dickey Amendment," has been passed each year by strong bipartisan votes, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton every year until the end of his term.

To be sure, when stem cells were first derived from human embryos in 1998, President Clinton wanted to fund ESCR, he had to find a way around existing federal law: He said federal funds would be used for research on stem cells obtained by destroying embryos, but would not fund the act of destruction itself.

By contrast, Bush's "compromise" policy permits federal funding only of ESCR that uses stem cell lines already in existence as of August 9, 2001, so the offer of federal funds will not be used to promote the destruction of new embryos. It doesn't take a theologian to see that this comports better with the spirit of the Dickey amendment. Under this policy, tens of millions of federal dollars have been spent on ESCR. As presidential spokesman Ken Lisaius told me, the Bush federal funding policy "advances stem cell science consistent with the crucial principle that government should not encourage the destruction of human life."

Which leads us to the big question: Is a one-week-old embryo a form of human life? Cuomo asserts that the president "will have to provide more than sincere religiosity to prove human life exists as early as fertilization." But this question has never been a religious issue, nor has Bush ever asserted that it is. Rather, the question of whether an embryo is human life involves basic biology. To learn the unvarnished scientific truth about whether an early embryo is really a form of human life, we need only turn to apolitical medical and embryology textbooks.

And guess what: According to several eminent texts, a human embryo is indeed human life, just as the president "asserts." For example, the authors of The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (6th Ed., 1998) assert: "Human development is a continuous process that begins when an oocyte [egg] is fertilized by a sperm." The fertilized egg is known as a zygote, which "is the beginning of a new human being." More to the point, the authors write: "Human development begins at fertilization" with the joining of egg and sperm, which "form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized . . . cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual." Similarly, the authors of Human Embryology and Teratology (Third Ed., 2001), another embryology textbook assert that upon the completion of conception, "a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed." (all emphases added)

It is also worth noting in this regard that the prestigious British science journal Nature published an article in 2002 describing how the human body plan "starts being laid down immediately" upon fertilization. "Your world was shaped in the first 24 hours after conception," the Nature article asserted. "Where your head and feet would sprout, and which side would form your back and which your belly, were defined in the minutes and hours after sperm and egg united." The article goes on to note that the newly fertilized one-cell embryo is already a unique human life, not merely the "naïve sphere" or "featureless orb" as scientists once thought

In other words, based on pure biology and embryology--which is science and not religion--fertilization does indeed create a new human life. And if this is true of the one-celled embryo, it is surely true of the same embryo when it has developed for a week to the stage when embryonic stem cells can be derived.

Whether this matters morally is a different issue altogether. As the authors of Human Embryology and Teratology write, "The [moral] status of the early human embryo is an evaluation rather than a scientific question, and assessment is influenced considerably by philosophical outlook." But if we are going to engage in proper moral analysis, we have to get the science right. Unfortunately, articles such as Cuomo's are designed to prevent precisely this kind of informed moral analysis.

Mario Cuomo prides himself on his intellectual rigor. But in the embryonic stem cell funding debate, President Bush is the one who has based his moral position on informed scientific facts. To be sure, one can disagree with his conclusions. But it is intellectually dishonest to claim, as Cuomo does, that Bush is merely imposing his narrow religious views on a secular America by opposing federal funding for stem cell research that destroys human embryos

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.