- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

Tuesday, President Bush went before cameras holding a month-old baby named Trey Jones. The picture raised a question supporters of embryonic stem cell research would rather not answer: Would the world be better off if Trey had been killed as an embryo to advance medical research?

That is what would happen to thousands of other embryos under the bill passed last week by the House of Representatives, at least if the supporters’ hopes are realized — and it would happen with the federal government’s approval and help. The measure would scrap the policy Mr. Bush adopted in August 2001, when he agreed to government financing of such research only if it relied on already created stem cell lines.

He drew a clear line: Medical science can exploit the products of embryos that had already been killed, but the federal government would not be an accomplice to studies that require additional killing. It was a modest restriction, since it did not prevent researchers from destroying other embryos, if they got their money from somewhere other than Washington. But it established the principle there are some things we should not do, even in the hope of healing.

That principle doesn’t seem terribly popular on Capitol Hill. The House bill would allow federally funded research on embryos created in fertilization clinics that would otherwise be discarded, and that are donated by the parents. Never mind that frozen embryos not needed by their parents don’t have to be destroyed. They can be implanted in the wombs of willing mothers, as Trey Jones was.

Mr. Bush has promised to veto the bill. But this may not be the last word from Congress: Other bills would not only allow destruction of “surplus” embryos but permit cloning new embryos that would also be destroyed.

Californians voted last year to provide $3 billion in state money to subsidize experimentation on embryos created solely for that purpose. The Massachusetts legislature has sent the governor a bill to allow such “therapeutic cloning.”

Supporters promise vast benefits if scientists are allowed to clone and destroy embryos as they see fit. In the House debate last week, advocates held out hope of curing paralysis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other illnesses.

Even some anti-abortion lawmakers found ways to rationalize ending lives to combat disease. “Who can say prolonging life is not pro-life?” asked Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican.

The claims, though, are speculative. David Shaywitz, a Harvard stem cell researcher who opposes existing restrictions, recently in The Washington Post lamented the “extravagant claims of progress” and noting that “growing these stubborn cells is notoriously difficult.”

While advocates extol the possible benefits, it was up to opponents to state the cost plainly. The research, said House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, would “kill some in hopes of saving others.”

You may not like getting moral instruction from a politician known mostly for his ethical lapses. But Mr. DeLay’s position is indistinguishable from that of the late Pope John Paul II.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research say opposition can only be attributed to dogmatic religious faith, and that Mr. Bush is pandering to the religious right. But you don’t have to be a believer (I am not) to think there is something wrong with destroying human life, however immature, just because it may be advantageous for those of us already born.

It is easy to ignore the nature of what are called mere “clumps of cells” or “blastocysts.” But all of us are clumps of cells, and all of us were once tiny blastocysts — separate and unique human beings at the earliest stage of life. The House-endorsed research means ending some human beings’ lives.

Why do we blind ourselves to that irreducible fact? Because we fervently hope to gain something from it — in this case, the chance of longer or better lives for ourselves.

Few would indulge scientists who proposed to dismember an actual baby, even if it were guaranteed to save lives. But we find ways to excuse dismembering embryos that need only nine months to become babies. Convenience trumps conscience.

Those who want to remove existing limits say we could get a lot from embryonic stem cell research. What would we lose? Wait a few years, and Trey Jones might be willing to tell you.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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