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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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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.