The short speech in which he
announced his decision was a political masterpiece. But the
conclusion that President George W. Bush reached on stem-cell
research was a moral disaster.
While he reiterated his opposition to the deliberate destruction of
human life, President Bush nevertheless accepted the proposition
that some human beings may legitimately profit from the death of
others. He attempted to set limits on the use of human embryos for
medical research, but his position is undermined by the logic of his
For the first time, thanks to the President's decision, the US
government will fund-- and thus the American taxpayer will
subsidize-- research on tissue that only exists because human
embryos were destroyed.
Yes, it is true that Bush refused to support research on newly
harvested embryos. Federal funds will only flow to those scientists
who use stem-cells drawn from embryos that are already dead. So
Uncle Sam will not directly subsidize those researchers who destroy
human lives in order to harvest stem-cells. But the government will
accept-- and pay for-- the results of that harvesting. Isn't this a bit
like saying that we oppose the killing of human beings in
concentration camps, but we are ready to buy the gold teeth taken
from the corpses?
The President suggests that in the case of the existing stem-cell lines,
already harvested from human embryos, the moral question is less
acute. After all, he points out, the life-or-death decision has already
been made; these embryos have already been destroyed.
Now apply that logic to the thousands of frozen embryos now
preserved in laboratories. They are not yet dead, but they soon will
be; their fate has already been sealed. If they are not used for
research, the vast majority of them will simply be discarded. So,
since they are slated for destruction, why shouldn't we profit from
their demise? The logic of the Bush policy leaves no compelling
answer to that question.
The proper answer-- the morally consistent answer-- is that human
lives should never be used as a means to an end. Mature, thinking
adults should never accept the exploitation of other human beings.
Perhaps Christians should attack the "demand side" of the stem-cell
research equation by organizing the patient's equivalent of the
Hippocratic Oath. We might join in a pledging that we shall refuse
any medical treatment that requires, or profits from, the deliberate
killing of human beings.
And then there is another dimension to this debate-- an issue that
has rarely been raised amid the clamor over stem-cell research. If it
is immoral to extract stem cells from human embryos, isn't it also
immoral to leave those embryos in a freezer? Isn't it immoral to
sacrifice several dozen embryos-- human lives-- in the quest for one
successful pregnancy? There too, in the process of in vitro
fertilization, we are exploiting some human lives for the benefit of
This year's debate over the fate of frozen embryos would not have
occurred if, years ago, the world had listened to the wisdom of the
Catholic Church, and recognized that the immorality of in vitro
fertilization. We are tempted to exploit these embryos for stem-cell
research only because we are already exploiting them to achieve
pregnancy by artificial means.
It is a great blessing when a barren couple conceives a child-- just as
it would be a great blessing if patients recovered from Alzheimer's
and Parkinson's disease as the result of stem-cell research. But if the
blessed result is achieved through the destruction of human lives,
then the cost is too high.