STEM CELL DECISION BY PRESIDENT BUSH
I had written to the President requesting he not approve embryonic stem cell research.
The available literature leads me to believe that stem cells from other tissues besides embryos will prove sufficient for legitimate aims. Tissue culture is well advanced, and about 80 years old or older (first developed to deal with cancer research). I suspect that eventually it will be possible to tease almost any tissue-specific cell into almost any other type. At that point, the use of embryos would have to be considered merely easier, not necessary.
Bush spoke calmly, effectively, confidently. I applaud him for the quality and delivery of the speech. He and his aides did their homework and his words were carefully crafted to be clear and accurate. (Right afterward, an ABC commentator blundered with inaccuracy in his opening comments.)
Bush threaded his way carefully and his presentation of opposing views was honest and (I would think) helpful in clarifying the issues for the general public.
The outcome -- permitting only research on the 60 lines already developed is a very narrow win for scientists wanting an open door for federal funding. Research will go forward with federal funding. While the win is narrow, the long-term impact of the President's decision will be enormous. His decision will of course encourage research undertaken without federal funds to be more radical than it might have been if no embryonic stem cell research received federal funding -- rather than proceeding in the dark, furtively, non-federally funded researchers can now present their results using new embryos right along with everyone supported by federal funds. Conferences will include both researchers from both federal and non-federal camps and the whole research sector will flourish unbridled. Hardly anyone outside the research community will know which results come from new embryo splitting and which come from the historic stem cell lines the President emphasized.
Bush justified his conclusion on the basis that the embryos involved were long since destroyed. This is true. It reminds me of the dilemma facing the Allies after WWII -- should results from German experimentation on living subjects (e.g., cooling prisoners in water until they expired, in order to determine bodily limits for German aviators), and from Japanese experimentation on diseases in the infamous Unit 731 in Manchuria, be mined for their utility in understanding the human body? The decision was to say yes in all cases I have come across.
The President's decision is different in two ways -- 1) embryos are arguably different from fetuses and liveborn human beings (I said arguably, not that I want to maintain this distinction from a moral and spiritual perspective, but I simply want to acknowledge the fact that significant arguments with some plausibility can be developed that focus on physical differences. 2) actively doing research on surviving (living) stem cells in tissue culture obtained from viable embryos is different from looking at results from research that is no longer being done. Taking into account all the opinions on embryonic stem cell research, one may conclude that these two types of differences oppose and partially neutralize each other, insofar as their effect on the President's decision is concerned.
In the end, the President's acknowledgment that the debate raised two significant questions, of which the first was the status of the embryo, is the key to finding the morally and spiritually correct answer. If the embryo is not accorded the status of personhood, then it is easy to answer the second question, what to do with leftover embryos and with stem cell lines from them. The answer is -- anything at all is permissible.
But if the embryo has the status of personhood ("accorded" would not be correct if the embryo is indeed a person), then the second question is easily answered in the opposite way. The answer is -- do nothing except to let God and His Providence treat embryos as they have always been treated -- with our responsibility being to care and respect embryos as undeveloped human beings.
While many opposed to the President's decision may entertain doubts on the margin from time to time (owing to several biophysical properties of embryonic cells, and of the human genome and its expression, as well as spiritual considerations involving the interplay between spiritual and material aspects of our world), my conclusion is that the embryo is a person. Thus I cannot agree that the President's decision is right. The juggernaut will now pick up speed.
But I regard his report as evidence that he considered the issue carefully. His appointment of Dr. Leon Kass, well-known as a conservative concerning embryo status and opposed to cloning, is noteworthy. I conclude the President is sincere about his study and conclusions. But the decision is still wrong.
At the end of the day, a most telling point needs emphasis. Many researchers and policy makers have said they oppose cloning but would allow embryonic stem cell research. Without giving details, their opinions reveal their ignorance or their suppression of the true nature of what takes place in obtaining embryonic stem cells. The fact is that embryo splitting to obtain the stem cells is human cloning already. The decision not to implant the multiple new embryo-offspring, as each separated stem cell begins to divide, only means that normal human development is interrupted, not that cloning has been avoided. The cloning occurred as soon as the embryo was split.
It is in the nature of the
Dr. John C. Munday Jr.
August 10, 2001