May 25, 2005,
Representative Diana DeGette (D., Colo.) knew that her bill, expanding funding for research that destroys human embryos, was going to pass the U.S. House yesterday. She did not pass up the opportunity, however, to explain that opponents “do not understand the complexity” of the issue. It’s the sort of dismissal to which her side of the debate has habitually resorted: They are for progress, knowledge, health, and science; their opponents are for ignorance, disease, theocracy, and dogma.
But it is possible to believe that the search for cures is a worthy endeavor while also believing that there should be legally enforced ethical limits on it. Making taxpayers finance research that kills human beings falls on the wrong side of the line.
In yesterday’s House debate, the most popular argument for the funding was that the embryos were going to be “discarded” or go “unused” so why not derive some advantage from their demise? That argument appeals to people’s practical streaks, but it rests on a bit of sleight of hand. It is a way of assuming that human embryos are not human beings with rights without actually trying to establish the point. Anyone who takes seriously the idea that human beings in the embryonic stage of development have rights would find the language jarringly inapposite. Nobody complains that death-row inmates and nursing-home residents are going “unused” since their organs are not being taken from them before their inevitable deaths. (The argument is also misleading, since the vast majority of embryos are not going to be “discarded anyway,” but rather would be indefinitely frozen a problematic situation, but not the same as death.)
Congressmen also referred to the possibility that America would lose its scientific and economic “edge” if the federal government did not subsidize this research. Our best researchers would move to other lands with more generous subsidies. This worry is, however, essentially incompatible with the fear that by not subsidizing the research, we are throwing away possible cures for diseases. If those cures are found in other countries, then it stands to reason that Americans will have access to them.
Congressmen in favor of the bill piled another contradiction on top of these. They said that by keeping the research in America we could make sure it followed ethical norms. The major ethical norm here would seem to be an either/or matter: If you are not going to forswear subsidizing the killing of human beings for research purposes, then what ethical norms remain to be imposed? But if it is the case that restricting federal funding for the research will drive it overseas, why wouldn’t imposing ethical norms do the same thing? The moment a restriction began to have bite, the congressmen’s logic would militate against it.
a sound moral principle here.”
President Bush, four years ago, said that the federal government would fund research on stem-cell lines that had already been taken from human embryos. But he also said that he would not encourage the taking of human life by funding research involving the destruction of human embryos after that time. Bush’s critics say that this funding is inadequate, even though hundreds of shipments of stem-cell lines have gone out to researchers. The critics say that these lines are “contaminated” because they were developed with mouse feeder cells and therefore cannot be used in clinical trials on humans. This is incorrect (although Reuters reported it as fact). Mouse feeder cells have been involved in the development of FDA-approved drugs and devices for humans before. Besides, several lines developed without mouse feeder cells are eligible for funding under Bush’s policy.
But even if the critics were correct about these points, it would not establish that the policy should be expanded. Bush is trying to defend a sound moral principle here. He has promised a veto of the bill. If senators consider the issue’s moral complexities more wisely than Rep. DeGette a big if, we recognize it won’t have to come to that.