- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

Sometime within the next few weeks, President Bush is expected to make a decision on whether to approve federal funding of stem cell research on human embryos. New York Times commentator William Safire, among others, says the decision could be the defining point of Mr. Bush's presidency.
Not long ago, it appeared that the debate was basically over. New evidence, however, suggests that the research may not be the sure thing supporters have claimed it to be.
Until now, fetal stem cell research has been acclaimed as a medical miracle in the wings, just waiting for federal funds to allow it to take center stage in the fight to cure diseases such as Parkinson's. But the authors of a study released in a recent issue of the journal Science found that embryonic stem cells, at least in mice, are much more unpredictable than previously thought.
The researchers, at the last minute, deleted a sentence in their article stating that, according to The Washington Post, "scientists may face unexpected challenges as they try to turn the controversial cells into treatments for various degenerative conditions." The researchers apparently deleted this sentence because they were concerned that the potential problem might be "exaggerated" by those opposing stem cell research.
The problem, however, is not an exaggeration of the claims of those who oppose the research. Rather, the problem is with those who support the research and have made extraordinarily bold claims about its potential.
Other scientists have said that any abnormalities in the stem cells of the mice are not an issue with human fetal research. They argue that the stem cells of the mice were being used to clone full mice, rather than simply using them to grow only human tissue, like cardiac muscle.
Yet regardless of this distinction, the researchers who did the study have raised the possibility that stem cells will not live up to their political hype. Until now, opponents of fetal stem cell research have been characterized as ignorant Luddites standing in the way of human progress and global health. That clearly is not the case.
What kind of impact will this study have on Mr. Bush's decision about federal funding of stem cell research? Obviously, it should make him look more closely at the claims made by the study's supporters.
As with most questions in both politics and life, decision-makers must balance competing and sometimes incompatible interests. Even if one believes that using embryonic stem cells for medical research is immoral, the opposing argument clearly has more weight if two things are true: first, that the embryos will be destroyed anyway; and second, that the research will indeed save thousands, if not millions, of lives.
The Science report casts a shadow of doubt on the second claim. Scientists may think that the abnormalities discovered will not ultimately impact growing human tissue from stem cells. But it isn't clear that the research will definitely save lives, as supporters have led the general public to believe.
Thus, the force of the argument has clearly swung in the direction of the opponents of funding fetal research because two things are now true. First, medical research on human life, even potential human life as some call it, is fraught with medical and ethical complications, regardless of whether one believes — as I do — that destroying human embryos is immoral. And second, stem cell research is not certain to bring the benefits that we have been led to believe it will.
Private researchers are already engaging in experimentation on these tiny lives. They will continue regardless of Mr. Bush's ultimate decision. Federal taxpayers, however, many of whom oppose stem cell research on moral grounds, should not be compelled to pay for it, especially when its benefits are not certain.
This is not to suggest that the federal government should never fund medical research when its benefits are uncertain. But it is to say that when fundamental moral questions are involved — especially when we're dealing with questions of human life — supporters of such funding should at least have concrete proof of its benefits before engaging the moral debate.
Like the researchers who performed the study, stem cell funding supporters will accuse dissidents of playing politics with its results. But these supporters should remember that they are the ones seeking political affirmation. Dissenting voices are simply reminding the public what it too often doesn't hear in the race to embrace allegedly beneficial technology that there exists a unique moment when cells become life, and the image of God is formed, no matter how tiny it may be.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of the Rutherford Institute.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide