- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

Republican leaders in the House reached an agreement last month that will place embryonic stem cell research on Congress’ summer agenda. As columnist Robert Novak reported, GOP leaders “had changed their position on allowing a vote for federal funding” after Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware and his group of liberal Republicans “threatened to withhold votes on the closely contested budget resolution.” Mr. Castle is a cosponsor of a pro-funding bill that would never have seen a House vote if House Speaker Dennis Hastert — an opponent of embryonic stem cell research — had not agreed to the deal —a “vote swap of epic proportions,” according to Mr. Novak

For social conservatives outraged at the “stem cell swap,” Republicans were seen using human embryos for political expediency. Does it, however, spell doom for opponents of the research? Not necessarily.

Before deciding an issue involving vast ethical concerns, Americans should be allowed to weigh the merits of each side. Supporters of embryonic stem cell research are quick to cite the field’s miraculous possibilities. But that’s all they are: possibilities. A society that values the sanctity of life cannot give scientists a free hand to destroy what is undeniably potential human life based on little more than vague promises of wonderful cures. That said, there are no federal limitations against conducting research, only limits on how federal tax dollars can be used to fund such research.

At the state level, this debate is playing out across the country. Several state legislatures, including Maryland’s, are busy debating legislation to fund stem-cell clinics, following the example in California, where voters approved a $3 billion funding scheme last year. Other states are considering research bans or restrictions. South Dakota, for instance, already bans embryonic stem cell research. It appears that the debate will continue to move forward whether Congress addresses the issue or not.

And ideally, with an issue where advocates on both sides claim to speak from a position of moral authority, the best venue for a resolution of these moral questions is in state legislatures — where, for instance, the abortion issue should have been resolved, instead of by Supreme Court fiat. But while we can hope for honest debate, inevitably, low tactics will be employed. Former vice presidential candidate John Edwards epitomized the worst kind of rhetoric when he said last year following the death of paralytic Christopher Reeve that if John Kerry were elected people like Mr. Reeve would be able to get out of their wheelchairs.

Healthy debate, however, may lead toward agreement among scientists with ethical concerns. Last December, at a meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Dr. William Hurlbut theorized that scientists might be able to cultivate embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. This suggests that a path might exist between the zones of conflict dividing ethicists and scientists. Similarly, by providing funding for research on embryos in fertility clinics — which proponents contend are already marked for destruction — Mr. Castle’s bill seeks a third way. Of course this is not an appealing alternative for staunch opponents, yet it does at least try to address ethical concerns.

With science’s advances pushing us into ethical black zones, and with the nation strongly divided on these issues, the best possible resolution will come through the people via their elected representatives. Unlike Roe v. Wade, which was an attempt by the Supreme Court to circumvent the democratic process, it is to be hoped that the country can reach a balanced solution before the debate is stunted by a premature court ruling.

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