When President Bill Clinton announced that the federal government was issuing new rules permitting research on embryonic stem cells, he provided his personal assurance that the experimentation would meet "rigorous ethical standards."
That's a little like John Rocker promising to police ethnic slurs. It isn't just that Bill Clinton is no one's idea of an ethicist, nor just that the president has condoned, indeed celebrated, every form of abortion extant including partial-birth abortion, but also because the sort of research his Department of Health and Human Services is now countenancing is patently illegal.
Since 1996, the Congress has inserted language into the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services specifying that federal funds not be used for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death."
This language has infuriated advocates of embryonic stem cell research. And apparently they've decided to split legal hairs in an effort to end run the law. The new guidelines would permit the use of stem cells provided only that federally funded researchers did not extract the cells from living embryos themselves. In other words, researchers at the National Institutes of Health are free to purchase the cells from private companies -- usually fertility clinics. So, while the Congress passed a law forbidding federally funded research on human embryos, such research will now go forward. It depends upon what your definition of "human" is.
Unwilling to face the moral dilemma inherent in research of this kind, advocates cite the fantastic possibilities that stem cells seem to promise -- cures for Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease and spinal cord injuries, among other wonders. Christopher Reeve traveled to Capitol Hill to plead for funding. The emotion seems all on the side of rushing research on embryos.
The New York Times gave the story of the new guidelines front-page treatment, while clearly confused about how any right-thinking person could possibly object. Still, the Times story did acknowledge the concerns of "abortion foes" explaining that they opposed such research "because the embryos, which they consider to be capable of life, are destroyed in the process."
They consider? Who disagrees that embryos, once implanted in a human uterus, are capable of life? A human embryo, as Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., once memorably put it, will not develop into a German shepherd.
Abortion advocates (and The New York Times is certainly one) torture the language rather than trouble their consciences. Yet the whole matter of using embryos for research, no matter how promising, is fraught with moral pitfalls -- and it may not even be necessary to make such decisions.
As recently as a week before the new guidelines were issued, The Washington Post reported the fantastic progress in adult stem cell research. "Adult bone marrow cells can be coaxed into becoming what appear to be nerve cells, and might provide a nearly limitless supply of replacement neurons for patients with Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease and spinal cord injuries." Other recent reports have indicated that umbilical cord blood and human placentas are rich sources of stem cells. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., citing these studies, has characterized embryo research as "illegal, immoral and unnecessary."
Even if there were no other source for these promising cells, it would still be immoral to destroy human embryos to harvest them. Advocates say the embryos would be destroyed anyway. That's true. Most are "leftovers" from couples who succeeded in getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization. Most of those unwanted embryos are discarded (though some are donated to other infertile couples). But because one set of people is cavalier about human life does not justify everyone else.
To use a human being, even a newly conceived one, as a commodity is never morally acceptable. Each person must be treated as an end in himself, not as a means to improve someone else's life.
It is difficult to think of an embryo as a person. As one news story put it, they are no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence -- at the start. But that is part of the miracle of life. And a society that stops thinking so is not likely to be very humane.