The Magazine

Frist's Stem Cell Capitulation

From the August 8, 2005 issue: Editorial

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By ERIC COHEN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Frist justified his position on using the "spares" by pointing to the unique scientific promise of embryonic stem cell research. He said that our policies must evolve with the times, and that "the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases." But by this logic, the more advanced research that will surely exist in the near future--like the mass creation of genetically tailored embryonic stem cells, produced by creating and destroying cloned human embryos--will justify shifting the moral and political boundaries yet again. It undermines the effort to ban human cloning, as Sen. Frist says he wants to do. And it may justify funding human cloning, as Sen. Frist may one day be convinced to do by his own reasoning. If the respect due to embryos is so little that the government should promote their destruction with NIH dollars, why not fund human cloning for research purposes, too? If the standards of human dignity evolve with the latest research possibilities, why not harvest human fetuses in animal wombs, if doing so is more likely to advance science and cure disease?

This moving of the boundaries is exactly what the pro-embryo research side wants to do. Those who defend research cloning, for example, claim that we need to do it in order to produce genetically controlled stem cells. They say that this will allow us to build disease-specific models and to transplant cells without fear of immune-rejection. The scientific argument for research cloning is thus also an argument against the clinical value of using the "spares," which are far less useful because we cannot control the genomes of the stem cells derived from them. But these advocates know that funding the cloning of human embryos for research purposes is not today's fight, but tomorrow's fight. And so they need to set a precedent that public support for embryo, fetal, and cloning research depends not on the moral character of the research itself but on its projected scientific value in light of the latest laboratory findings or speculations. Senator Frist, with his speech, gave in to this kind of situational ethics, and became an ally of those who seek to do what the senator says he wants to stop.

Edmund Burke once said that "the sides of sickbeds are not the academies for forming statesmen and legislators." There is growing reason to believe that Burke was right. But here is one thing that can be done between now and when the Senate takes up this issue, most likely in September: Those pro-embryo research politicians who rushed to praise Frist's wisdom and courage should now be forced to take a position on the rest of Frist's recommendations: Will they agree to ban the creation of any human embryo solely for research? Will they agree to make federal funding of research involving destroyed IVF-embryos contingent on such a ban? Or is their support for funding the "spares" really just one step toward funding everything--creation for destruction, research cloning, fetal farming--and a way to weaken those, like President Bush, who oppose the steady march toward the brave new world?

And Frist could still make his support for the Castle-DeGette bill depend on winning the support of his pro-embryo research colleagues for a ban on the creation of human embryos solely for research and destruction. This, at least, would make supporting limited research on the "spares" contingent on stopping the full-scale instrumentalization of nascent human life. Such a "Frist Compromise" would not, on balance, make us a better country. It would not settle this divisive moral issue. For our part, we would still oppose any federal funding of embryo-destructive research. But at least such a "Frist Compromise" would represent an effort to hold the nation to some moral standard, instead of simply capitulating to those who seek a national blessing for embryo destruction.

--Eric Cohen and William Kristol