WASHINGTON -- Scalding criticism directed by some conservatives at Sen. Bill Frist concerning his slightly revised position regarding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is symptomatic of the casual cynicism that nowadays passes for political realism. Some ``social conservatives'' purporting to speak for ``values voters'' -- what voters do not intend their political choices to advance their values? -- insist, simultaneously, that Frist made a gross political blunder, and that he sacrificed principles to politics. This train wreck of logic makes one's head hurt.
The president's firm policy -- he vows to veto House-passed legislation that would alter it -- is that the federal government will not fund research that involves the destruction of any embryo, so federal funding should support research only on the 78 stem cell lines that existed when he formulated his policy in August 2001. At that time Frist, who before then had proposed a moderately more permissive policy, accepted the president's policy.
Now, however, Frist says that only 22 stem cell lines, of uncertain and declining quality, remain eligible for federal funding. So he endorses the House legislation that would expand federal funding of research. But it would encompass only cells from surplus embryos that have been created in vitro and frozen for couples who, having completed their fertility enhancement, donate them for research. These embryos would otherwise remain frozen or be destroyed.
The legislation would not allow funding for research on cells derived from embryos created for the purpose of harvesting cells. Nevertheless, many thoughtful people fear that the House-passed legislation puts the nation's foot on a slippery slope leading to such a commodification of life.
Life, however, is lived on a slippery slope: Taxation could become confiscation; police could become gestapos. But the benefits from taxation and police make us willing to wager that our judgment can stop slides down dangerous slopes.
It is carelessly said, and hence widely believed, that in 2001 President Bush halted ongoing stem cell research -- ``banned'' it -- thereby denying suffering Americans imminent medical marvels. Remember John Edwards' fantasy that ``when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.''