"We were all an embryo at one point, and we ought to as a society be very careful about being callous about the wanton destruction of embryos, of life," White House aide Karl Rove told the Denver Post this week.
He was explaining why President Bush is committed to casting his first-ever veto against a bill -- which may pass the Senate as early as next week -- that would give tax dollars to researchers who deliberately kill human embryos to extract their stem cells.
"The president is emphatic about this," Rove said.
This veto threat is necessary because of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's latest positioning on the issue. In 2001, when Bush barred federal funding for stem cell research that kills embryos, Frist supported him. Now, Frist supports a bill passed by the House last year that overrides the president's funding ban, giving tax dollars to researchers who kill un-implanted embryos taken from in vitro fertilization clinics. Last month, after hectoring by supporters of embryonic stem cell research, Frist agreed to schedule a Senate vote on the bill.
Politically, Frist may merit taxonomical reclassification as an invertebrate.
But as a heart surgeon with a degree from Harvard Medical School, he remains uniquely qualified to explain the basic science of human life -- which he did quite emphatically on the Senate floor last year.
"I believe human life begins at conception," Frist said on July 29, 2005. "It is at this moment that the organism is complete -- yes, immature -- but complete. An embryo is nascent human life. It is genetically distinct. And it is biologically human. It is living. This position is consistent with my faith. But, to me, it isn't just a matter of faith. It is a fact of science."
Yet, in this very speech, Frist announced qualified support for the House bill and justified sometimes using tax dollars to kill embryos.
He couldn't bring himself to logically apply an inalterable moral principle to what he himself defined as an inalterable scientific fact.
Not so, President Bush.
When Bush announced his policy on funding stem cell research in 2001, he may not have understood the science as well as Frist, but he had a superior grasp of the relevant moral principle: Researchers must never deliberately take innocent life.
Bush said he wanted "to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life."
The next year, announcing his support for banning all human cloning (including cloning embryos to kill them for their stem cells), Bush crystallized the issue: "Research cloning would contradict the most fundamental principle of medical ethics: that no human life should be exploited for the benefit of another."
Bush was echoing a principle enunciated by the U.S. judges who tried Nazi doctors at Nuremburg after World War II.
In "The Nazi Doctors -- Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide," author Robert J. Lifton chronicled how Hitler seduced physicians into overseeing mass murder. It started when Hitler directed his own doctor, Karl Brandt, to make certain a single deformed infant was "euthanized." From there, it escalated to Dr. Josef Mengele monitoring the arriving trains at Auschwitz to choose which prisoners to send directly to the gas chambers, which to retain as workers, and which to send to his laboratory for experimentation and dissection.
"It seemed easier -- perhaps more 'natural' and at least less 'unnatural' -- to begin with the very young: first, newborns; then, children up to 3 and 4; then, older ones," wrote Lifton, summarizing Germany's initial steps toward medicalized killing.
At Nuremburg, the judges who sentenced Brandt and other Nazi doctors to death issued a code of principles they believed ought to govern research on human subjects. "The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury," they wrote. "No experiment should be conducted where there is a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur ..."
When researchers take a human embryo from an in vitro fertilization clinic to extract its stem cells, their intention is to kill it.
The intention of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which Frist supports and will bring to a vote in the Senate, is to take money from working Americans and give it to researchers who, by Frist's own definition, will take human life.
It not only violates the Nuremburg Code, it forces taxpayers to pay for the violation.
Vetoing this bill would be Bush's finest hour. Before sending it to him, Frist ought to consider why we condemned Nazi doctors and reconsider his position -- again.