The Senate on Tuesday debated three important bills: Castle-DeGette, which expands federal funding for stem-cell research that kills human embryos; Santorum-Specter, which funds new research that uses the latest techniques to obtain embryonic-like stem cells without actually destroying embryos; and Brownback-Santorum, which would ban "fetal farming" or the practice of growing human fetuses for the purpose of using their body parts.
All three of these bills ask the fundamental question: What kind of people are we?
Americans are a people whose founding document promises that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In the 1970s, a great exception was made. The Supreme Court declared that abortion was a constitutional right. Because science could not tell us when human life begins (the court argued), women had a right to control their own bodies: "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins," Justice Blackmun wrote for the majority. "When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."
Castle-DeGette, authorizing federal funding for research that requires killing nascent human lives, marks a great culture change: Taxpayer funding means the federal government, instead of expressing agnosticism about when human life begins, as Roe did, will come firmly down on the side of those who think nascent human life is merely a clump of cells. If killing it might yield scientific progress, then human life has no moral rights at all. The once sacred right to take human life, once a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor, has morphed into the right of any scientist in consultation with his lab partner -- at taxpayer expense.
If we have a choice, why not bet on techniques that don't involve killing? For many Democrats (and some Republicans), however, establishing the right to destroy human embryos appears to be more important than bridging divisive issues in the interest of scientific progress. It's amazing how blatantly and publicly some Democrats play politics with human life itself: "This will be one of the major issues of the campaign, and it is going to allow us to win voters we have not won before," announced Sen. Charles E. Schumer.
Meanwhile, the science gallops onward. Virtually every week there are new reports like this one from the University of Pennsylvania: "Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have isolated a new source of adult stem cells that appear to have the potential to differentiate into several cell types. ... It could one day provide the tissue needed by an individual for treating a host of disorders, including peripheral nerve disease, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury."
Some people tell you that we have to choose between science and humane values. President Bush (who has promised to veto) saw and said otherwise in his State of the Union Address this year:
"A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners, and that recognize the matchless value of every life. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research -- human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling or patenting human embryos."
This week, the president is likely to get his wish. All three bills are expected to pass the Senate. And President Bush has promised to veto federal funding for stem cell research that destroys human life -- his first veto ever. "Human life is a gift from our creator," President Bush said in January, "and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale."