With his Friday speech on the Senate floor announcing his support for federal funding of new embryonic stem cell research, Senate majority leader Bill Frist did the wrong thing at the wrong time.
For four years, embryo research advocates have claimed that the Bush administration has "banned stem cell research." Not so. The issue in question is federal funding for embryonic stem cell research--research in which new embryos will be destroyed. Such research has been, and is, legal, and while the president has endorsed a ban on human cloning, he has not proposed to outlaw the destruction of embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF). He simply does not want the federal government to fund or promote research that requires the ongoing destruction of embryos.
In fact, for all the complaints of scientists that the American government is standing in the way of their pioneering efforts, the striking fact about the present situation is that there are virtually no legal prohibitions on many radical areas of biotechnology. There are no limits on human cloning, no limits on fetal farming, no limits on the creation of man-animal hybrids, and no limits on the creation of human embryos solely for research and destruction. It is in this rather permissive moral and legal climate that Frist seeks to remove one of the few public boundaries that still exist.
In May, the House of Representatives passed a bill, sponsored by Representatives Michael Castle and Diana DeGette, that would authorize federal funding for research using stem cells derived from IVF embryos left over in fertility clinics, unwanted by the parents who produced them, and destroyed by researchers. This means the federal government would promote what many citizens see as a grave evil: the deliberate destruction of nascent human life. The legislation, which President Bush has promised to veto, would make embryo destruction a nationally sponsored project. It is a most immoderate approach to a morally weighty issue.
It is immoderate partly because it is so unnecessary. When it comes to stem cell research, there are many sources of support, some of them from other levels of government. In 2004 (to our regret), California passed a law providing $3 billion in funding for embryo research and research cloning--far more money than even the most pro-stem cell administration would ever provide through the NIH. Meanwhile, embryo destruction proceeds apace in private laboratories around the country, and in some states beyond California with generous public funding. So why does it make sense to force citizens to become complicit in an activity they see as wrong, when funding for such research is readily available from nonfederal sources? Why not support the current national policy, which neither funds nor bans embryo research? And why call for funding research on the so-called "spare embryos" without first demanding limits on other, even more egregious projects--such as creating and destroying embryos solely for research?
In his speech endorsing Castle-DeGette, Frist did also call for banning the creation of embryos solely for research and for banning human cloning. This makes him more responsible than most embryo research advocates. But he did not make his support for funding research using the "spares" contingent on setting such limits. So the effect of Frist's remarks was to strengthen the hand of those no-limits senators who wish to advance the very kinds of research that Frist still says he believes should be out of bounds (at least for now).
The incoherence of Frist's position is staggering. In his Senate speech, he explained that the "embryo is a human life at its earliest stage of development." He said that he believes, as a person of faith and a man of science, that "human life begins at conception." He reminded us that "we were all once embryos." He called on all citizens, including scientists, to treat human embryos with the "utmost dignity and respect." It was a clear and elegant statement on the dignity of early human life, backed up by a doctor's understanding of elementary embryology.
But then, as if giving a different speech, Frist called on the federal government to promote, with taxpayer dollars, the ongoing destruction of human embryos. In a television interview that day, he said that research using and destroying the "spares" can be done ethically so long as there is a "moral framework around informed consent." But if embryos deserve respect as nascent human lives, as Frist says he believes, it should not matter whether researchers have permission from their parents to destroy them. If embryos are "human life at its earliest stage," as Frist says he believes, then none of us possesses the authority to consent to their destruction. To promote embryo destruction and still claim to be "pro-life," as Frist did throughout his speech, is absurd.
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