- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

It will come as a surprise to many members of Congress that people don't want to die or be crippled, and that rich people will spend millions to prolong their stately pleasures. Today, in the Senate, hearings are scheduled to determine what, if anything, the federal government should do about embryonic stem cell research. This may sound obscure, but within a few years, we finally may be indulging in Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth.

The properties of these human embryo stem cells, discovered by private researchers just a year and a half ago have, according to The Washington Post, "remarkable regenerative powers." Described by Science magazine as the "breakthrough of 1999," these cells form all kinds of other human cells, including nerve, heart, muscle and blood. Because of this Zelig-like property, The National Institute of Health reported last December that these cells promise "new treatments and possible cures for many debilitating diseases and injuries, including Parkinson's, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, burns and spinal cord injuries. The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation has found that stem cells hold the promise of "curing diabetes."

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have added Lou Gehrig's Disease, Down Syndrome, degeneration of the retina and diseases of the pancreas and liver to the list. According to CNN, cancer and Alzheimer's are also included amongst the diseases that these cells may cure.

Aside from these wonderful medical effects, the cells may have a substantial effect on the national budget. About 40 percent of Medicare costs relate to the treatment of diabetes. If these cells can cure just diabetes, Medicare will be in the black for the indefinite future.

But, of course, there is a ban on spending any federal taxpayer dollars on this research because the best sources of these magical cells are fresh not frozen human embryos and fetuses. Thus, the moral issue of abortion forces us, once again, to balance our personal yearnings against the ancient admonition: Thou shall not kill. That is why, during the Reagan administration, a ban on federal dollars for "fetal tissue research" was enforced. And, although President Clinton razed that ban, his administration has moved slowly, so no dollars have yet been spent.

Although most organizations opposed to abortion are also opposed to using embryo and fetal tissue for research, there is at least a little room for moral ambiguity here. The cells are available from currently legal and inevitable abortions as well as from fertility treatments that did not succeed. So, it is not immediately obvious that using these fetuses to save lives, rather than throw them away, constitutes an act that causes or increases abortions.

But even assuming a right-to-life congressman does not agree with that analysis (and holds federal participation to be a cause of increased abortions,) he or she faces a problem.

Until 18 months ago, this was a theoretical discussion. Advocates of federal funding were arguing that without federal dollars to support the expensive research there would be no progress. Opponents, morally equating the research with abortion, had a clear moral position to take.

But in the last several months, the breakthrough research of a year and a half ago has combined with legally unfettered private sector research and development, rich sick people and foreign governmental decisions to breach those comfortable fixed positions. The imminent private sector exploitation of these processes will force intellectually honest right-to-lifers to abandon our cherished illusion of moral clarity on this issue. Events have forced us into a zone of moral gangrene.

In Wisconsin an entire research facility the WiCell Research Institute built without federal dollars, is busy distributing human embryo cells to scientists around the country and the world. Within five weeks they will distribute their cells to pharmaceutical companies. There is no law to stop them. Harvard and Johns Hopkins scientists are racing to develop a possible cure for Lou Gehrig's disease. They are being funded by wealthy sufferers of that dread disease from Wall Street and Hollywood. A California biotech company, the Geron Corporation will soon be starting clinical trials (and issuing public stock offerings) on a cure for the same disease.

In Britain last month the prestigious Royal Society called for Britain to move forward in stem cell research and development.

A hundred years ago the diseased and the crippled dragged their broken bodies to Lourdes in hope of God's miraculous cure. Today the rich and informed are already lining up for this new miracle of science. As success is realized in stem cell development, a vast welter of sick and quivering humanity will stampede the drug companies for their cure. No federal dollars will be needed.

So for the right-to-lifers the question has become: Whether the balance of the moral argument supports federal regulation (and perhaps some limitations) on fetal tissue exploitation, or a principled opposition to any regulations, which is likely to lead to an even greater demand for the product of the abortionist's trade.

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