Last year, the Senate and House of Representatives passed twin bills expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 would have overturned President Bush’s August 2001 decision to allow federal funding only for research on already-existing lines of embryonic stem cells.
Unfortunately, President Bush killed the measure with his first and (to date) only veto. (Both houses of Congress lacked the two-thirds supermajorities needed to override his veto, though that may change on November 7.)
It is ironic, perhaps appropriately so, that the only bill this president would veto is one that is — unlike him — supported by an overwhelming majority of the American people.
A July 2006 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 68 percent of Americans support “expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research” while only 27 percent oppose it. The 2004 University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey, which divided its sample by party affiliation, found further that a majority of Republicans (53-38 percent) were in favor.
There are compelling reasons why more Americans agree on this one issue than perhaps any other on the legislative docket.
There is a scientific consensus that embryonic stem-cell research has the potential to yield important breakthroughs in the search for cures to some of the most common and deadly diseases.
Even President Bush does not dispute the scientific value of embryonic stem-cell research (as opposed to the less controversial non-embryonic forms of stem-cell research). In an East Room address, surrounded by a bunch of cute kids who were adopted as frozen embryos (nice touch, Karl), the president acknowledged that “embryonic stem cells have the ability to grow into specialized adult tissues, and [that] this may give them the potential to replace damaged or defective cells or body parts and treat a variety of diseases.” The sole reason for the veto, he made clear, was that embryonic stem-cell research “crosses a moral boundary.”
But does it?
While some have placed the stem-cell debate in the context of the “Culture War” — secular America vs. religious America — the reality is that much of religious America supports embryonic stem-cell research. And if more religious Americans knew exactly what it entailed, I am confident that even more would support it. That’s because embryonic stem-cell research isn’t actually “embryonic.” The stem cells in question are extracted from a five-day-old zygote, more specifically called a “blastocyst,” which has yet to undergo the embryonic process of cell differentiation.
It is in a different league than an embryo, much less a fetus.
It is not surprising, then, that many staunchly anti-abortion politicians have come out in favor of stem-cell research. The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act would not have passed were it not for the support of several prominent pro-life congressmen and senators, including Bill Frist (the current senate majority leader), Trent Lott (the previous senate majority leader) and Orrin Hatch.
No one, however, exemplifies the pro-life stem-cell research advocate better than John Danforth, former Republican senator and ordained Episcopal minister.
“My entire political career, I voted pro-life,” he says, “and that is exactly why I favor [stem-cell research]. I believe in saving human life. I want cures to be found.”
While religious Christians may be divided on the issue, it is worth noting that religious Jews are not. That’s because the strictest interpretation of Jewish law says that life begins at 40 days — long after the blastocyst phase — and that anything before that is “mere fluid.” Thus, while most Orthodox rabbis oppose abortion after the 40-day mark — except to save the mother’s life — virtually all support stem-cell research.
To those who do believe that life begins at conception, and that it is therefore immoral to destroy it at any stage, I say the following:
I respect your belief and share your value for the sanctity of human life, but I would respectfully remind you that the zygotes covered by the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act are not being engineered for research by some mad scientist “playing God.” They are excess zygotes from In Vitro Fertilization clinics and would, therefore, be discarded anyway.
Don’t believe me?
Read the bill:
“Human embryonic stem cells shall be eligible for use in any research conducted or supported by the Secretary if the cells meet each of the following:
“1) The stem cells were derived from human embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment.
“2) Prior to the consideration of embryo donation and through consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment, it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded.
“3) The individuals seeking fertility treatment donated the embryos with written informed consent and without receiving any financial or other inducements to make the donation.”
Recent scientific advances show that it may soon be possible to extract stem cells from the blastocyst without destroying it. I understand that while that would likely further peel off opposition to stem-cell research, it would not eliminate it.
That conservative minority’s opposition, however, should not continue to serve as an excuse for not funding the research any more than the opposition of a liberal minority to, say, the death penalty should prevent the government from financing the execution of cold-blooded killers — if that is what the American people have decided. When it comes to taxes, it’s all for one and one for all.
Meanwhile, life’s clock is ticking for millions who suffer from diseases without cures. Looking at pictures of these dying men and women, I ask myself: Who is really pro-life in this debate?
Ben Birnbaum is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Infomaniacs Anonymous appears Tuesdays.