Federally Funding Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Bush and Beyond

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On Thursday, August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush announced to the nation his long-awaited decision on whether federal funds would be used to support research on human embryonic stem cells. Billed as the “defining issue of his presidency,” stem cell research had elicited an intense battle between some patients’ rights advocates and medical researchers — who contend that such research will lead to a panacea for some of the most devastating human diseases — and those who object to the research because it requires the destruction of human embryos. While campaigning for the presidency, Bush had declared that “tax payer funds should not underwrite research that involves the destruction of live human embryos.” His final decision on the matter? To not allow federally funded destruction of embryos to produce stem cells, but instead to allot federal funds for research carried out on the 60 or so already existing stem cell lines obtained from embryos who had previously been destroyed by the private research sector.

As the war over stem cell research intensified during the last 2fi years, the stances taken by various groups on this issue were for the most part predictable. Reactions to the President’s decision, however, were far less so, with prominent pro-life groups both lauding and lashing out at the ruling. Politically speaking, Bush may have done the very best he could do, as Congress would have almost certainly overridden any decision to prohibit governmental sponsored stem cell research altogether. From this vantage point, Bush may indeed deserve to be commended; however, the question remains as to whether his decision is morally praiseworthy.

Acknowledging that human life is a “sacred gift from our Creator” which should not be devalued, Bush arrived at a policy which would fund research on stem cells obtained from embryos for whom “the life-and-death decision had already been made.” The implication here is that by sup porting the research only on embryos who have already been destroyed, the government can simultaneously distance itself from any endorsement of the requisite embryo destruction. However, can such a maneuver be defended, or will the government — simply by funding this research — also be complicit in the destruction of embryonic life? It is at this point that even conservatives have, surprisingly, differed fundamentally in their response.

Those concerned to unpack this issue must address two sets of questions. They must first determine whether they are, at the most basic level, opposed to the killing of embryos. If they are, but an embryo has already been destroyed despite their opposition, may they support the research on the resulting stem cells and still be regarded as morally upright? Or, are those in favor of the experimentation necessarily also aligned with the tragic loss of embryonic life? Should they condemn such experimentation because of their prima facie objection to the sacrifice of human embryos for use in medical research — since that is what is occurring, regardless of who was directly responsible for carrying out such sacrifice?

However one resolves these challenging questions (see www.stemcellresearch.org for helpful background information), we should all call on President Bush, Congress, and future administrations to never cross what Bush has called the “fundamental moral line [of] providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos.” Given the political climate, and depending on how the science of stem cell research advances over the next several month and years, this line may prove to be an extremely difficult one to hold.