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The Politics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Raymond J. Keating

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Raymond J. KeatingThe following article is based on remarks given at a May 21, 2005, conference titled "The Christian View on Embryonic Stem Cell Research," which was held at Christ Lutheran Church in East Moriches, New York.

If you recall, the final outcome of the presidential election ran a bit late this past November, though thankfully not as late as in 2000. My older son, then eight years of age, while he was getting ready to leave for school the next morning, asked, Who won? I told him President George W. Bush had been re-elected. He responded: "Wait, doesn't John Kerry have to make a confession speech?"

My wife and I laughed, and corrected him that it would be a concession speech. But then I thought about Senator Kerry's position on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, his Roman Catholic faith, and decided that perhaps my son was right. Kerry needed to make a confession speech. Unfortunately, Kerry most certainly is not the only one.

Embryonic stem cell research received considerable attention during last year's election, and continues to do so at the federal level and in the states. In fact, the debate is heating up again.

Judging by the political rhetoric and much of the media coverage at the time, one could have gotten the impression that a wide gulf existed between President Bush and Senator Kerry on this issue. I would argue that's not the case. While their philosophical positions differed markedly, their separation on actual policies was more a matter of degree, and that degree had to do with taxpayer dollars.

Many people don't realize that President Bush in 2001 became the first U.S. president to allow federal taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research. But in his August 2001 announcement, the President limited federal taxpayer-funded research to 78 stem cell lines that already existed at the time, and prohibited federal funds from being used for research on any stem cells derived from human embryos thereafter.

So, last year, the National Institutes of Health spent $24.8 million on embryonic stem cell research. (It spent over $200 million on non-embryonic stem cell research.) Federal law also still allows the private sector to fund and perform stem cell research involving the destruction of human embryos. States and localities could spend tax dollars on such research as well.

Nonetheless, political opponents, including Senator Kerry, criticized the President for instituting a "ban" on stem cell research. In reality, the President and Kerry disagreed about the current level of federal activity and funding, and its future existence. Bush wanted limits, while Kerry supported an expansive federal role. Bush's policy does not encourage further destruction of human embryos through federal funding, while Kerry's would have. But Bush did not call for stopping the private sector or the states from funding or performing embryonic stem cell research.

Congress now is engaged in the debate, with some of Bush's fellow Republicans looking to loosen his restrictions. The issue is scheduled to hit the U.S. House of Representatives this coming week. A piece of legislation (H.R. 810) is expected to be voted on that would allow federal funding of stem cell research using human embryos derived from fertility clinics and willingly donated from the patients or parents.

U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), who is a co-sponsor, said the bill would allow federally funded research on stem cell lines "derived ethically from donated embryos determined to be in excess." He added: "Under no circumstances does this legislation allow for the creation of embryos for research nor does it fund the destruction of embryos." In reality, of course, there is nothing ethical about terminating even "excess" -- how's that for a chilling word -- human life, at whatever stage of development, for the benefit of others. And by definition, this kind of stem cell research requires the destruction of human embryos.

Meanwhile, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) has proposed a similar bill in the Senate. Specter is pro-choice on abortion, so his stem cell stance might be expected. Far more perplexing is someone like Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who supports this effort. Hatch was recently quoted: "I come to this issue as a proud right-to-life senator. I do believe, very strongly, that it is possible to be both antiabortion and pro-embryonic stem cell research. I believe that pro-life means caring for the living as well." Hatch also has proposed a bill that would allow for "therapeutic cloning," but not cloning meant for reproductive purposes. Hatch is not alone among politicians who are pro-life on abortion, but still favor the destruction of human embryos for research purposes. The obvious contradictions somehow elude them, or they simply have chosen to abandon their principles.

In contrast, there are senators like Sam Brownback (R-KS), who has sponsored legislation banning all human cloning. In response to the so-called ethical guidelines for embryonic stem cell research recently offered by the National Academy of Sciences, Brownback declared forthrightly that "the guidelines miss the point: We should not be destroying human lives for the benefit of others."

Observers expect a close vote in the House, with members of Congress on both sides of the issue predicting passage. Members also are being offered an alternative to vote for by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). His bill focuses on funding research on stem cells from adults and umbilical cord blood, which do not involve the destruction of human embryos.

The Senate embryonic stem cell effort faces the hurdle of having to reach 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, and the numbers seem close there as well.

However, President Bush declared on Friday, May 20, that he would veto such a bill if it reached his desk. Interestingly, he has not yet vetoed a bill during his four-plus years in office. The President said: "I've made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science, which destroys life in order to save life -- I'm against that. And therefore if the bill does that, I will veto it." If the measure did pass, a Bush veto likely has sufficient votes in Congress to be sustained, with a veto override requiring a two-thirds majority.

But the politics of embryonic stem cell research is not limited to Congress and the White House. Much is happening in the states.

On Election Day 2004, a referendum, Proposition 71, passed in California by a margin of 59%-41%. It established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine that will hand out $300 million annually for 10 years for stem cell research, including embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. However, it's implementation has been hampered and its future made a bit cloudy due to being challenged in a couple of lawsuits.

Prior to the California referendum, New Jersey and Wisconsin already approved far more limited taxpayer subsidies for embryonic stem cell endeavors, and they now are considering more subsidies. In fact, assorted states either are on the verge of moving ahead with or seriously debating such funding, including Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, and our own New York. New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has proposed spending $300 million over two years on stem cell research, including research that requires the destruction of human embryos.

The arguments do not stop on the medical front. Many politicians, particularly in the states, also resort to economic arguments. They see high-paying jobs and biotech companies coming to their states with taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research. In support of taxpayer funding in New York, for example, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi (D) was quoted earlier this month declaring: "If we don't provide the level of support available in other states, research and development and all the jobs and opportunities that accompany it, will happen elsewhere."

Of course, since the science is so dubious regarding embryonic stem cells, then the economics are equally dubious. But even beyond that, I am reminded of Matthew 16:26 where Jesus says: "For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?"

On the other side, according to a "New York Times" report on May 20, seven states ban any kind of human cloning and 11 have laws somehow prohibiting embryonic stem cell research.

Where is the public on this issue? An impression lingers, I think, that support for embryonic stem cell research is strong based on various polls reported. Not surprisingly, though, it depends on what is being asked, and how the questions are framed. For example, while some polls show support for embryonic stem cell research, the numbers tend to drop dramatically when asking about taxpayer funding for such undertakings. Most encouraging is that the more information provided, the greater seems to be the general opposition to embryonic stem cell research. Human cloning, in particular, generates strong opposition.

All of us want to see science advance and horrible diseases cured. However, are we willing to use human beings as mere tools or raw material for manipulation and destruction? Mankind has gone down this path before with slavery and the Nazis. Nonetheless, some, including various scientists, advocate destroying human embryos in pursuit of other goods.

If embryos are human beings -- and they are, as science tells us that genetically we are unique individuals at the moment of conception -- then terminating certain lives, even in the hope of aiding the health of others, cannot be allowed. Humanity, when adrift from God, can rationalize almost anything. A narcissistic pursuit of self-fulfillment and self-preservation can overwhelm other considerations.

New York Assembly Speaker Silver has said, "When it comes to stem cell research, let us follow doctors, not doctrines." That's catchy, but grossly misguided. Stem cell research involving the destruction of human embryos, along with abortion, are grotesque examples of what happens when God is lost, and mere doctors, politicians and judges devoid of any moral anchor are followed.

I want to leave you with three quotes worth keeping in mind while pondering this issue.

First, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky observed: "If God does not exist, everything is permitted."

Second, twentieth century theologian Karl Barth declared: "No community, whether family, village or state, is really strong if it will not carry its weak and even its very weakest members."

And finally, C.S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest defender of Christianity during the 20th century, warned more than 60 years ago that "if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be."

In the public square, politicians and citizens often have to reflect upon, weigh and make decisions about great moral issues. On such clear issues like embryonic stem cell research and abortion, for example, where innocent life is being taken, the Christian Church and individual Christians have a responsibility to speak out clearly and forcefully.

Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at rjknewsday@aol.com.

Posted: 23-May-05



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