Mr. Bush’s Respect for Human Embryos

On July 20th, 2006 President Bush issued the first veto of his administration, rejecting a bill that would have lightened restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Bush defended his veto by saying that it “would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others… It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.” According to Mr. Bush, each child created by in vitro fertilization “began his or her life as a frozen embryo that was created for in vitro fertilization but remained unused after the fertility treatments were complete. . . These boys and girls are not spare parts.” Bush characterizes embryos—including frozen ones—as human beings entitled to the same rights as other human beings.

Mr. Bush appreciates the potential benefit of embryonic stem cell research for curing various diseases and injuries. Nonetheless, he justifies his veto by his religious belief that retrieving stem cells from human embryo is destructive, resulting in the killing of a human being or, at least, a “potentialâ€? human being. Accordingly, so goes the argument, this act cannot be justified in spite of the possible therapeutic benefits. Bush’s conclusion is obviously not based on biomedical science but instead is an expression of his religious creed. Asked in March 2004 about the stem cell controversy, his science adviser, Dr. John H. Marburger III said: “I can’t tell when a fertilized egg becomes sacred,” and added, “That’s not a science issue.”

No doubt the President’s belief that human life begins with fertilization is shared by millions of Americans, but it remains a minority view and one that the President appeals to inconsistently to advance his religious beliefs. Despite the fact that Mr. Bush believes that destroying an embryo amounts to intentionally killing a human being, he refuses to require legislation to stop commercial interests that are busily destroying tons of embryos in order to obtain stem cells. If their conduct amounted to “killingâ€? human beings, as the President strives to persuade us, it is hardly acceptable for him to say he will do nothing to stop these murderous acts other than to refuse them financial support.

Moreover, the President should offer more than his earnest religiosity as evidence that an embryo is a human being; a position, incidentally, that many other religions have traditionally disputed. Yes, it is true that science cannot supply “proof� that embryos are or are not human beings at the moment of conception—after all, providing answers to such question is not the proper object of scientific thinking. Bush’s position therefore rests only on his religious faith. The President’s opposition to stem cell research is thus best considered an expression of his religious tenets. If so, it is obviously wrong—and decidedly un-American—to force one’s religious beliefs on others, especially when this could result in substantial personal harm. Americans who could in fact benefit from human embryonic stem cell research—if the science ever in fact bears fruit—are left worse off by Mr. Bush’s monotheistic thinking, as is everyone who otherwise embraces diversity and freedom of thought.

Another line of reasoning claims that human embryo research is acceptable in principle but should not be practiced out of “profound respect� for embryos as a form of human life. The Ethics Advisory Board (EAB) in the U.S., the Warnock Committee in Great Britain, and the Human Embryo Research Panel of the National Institute of Health (NIH) are arguably sympathetic to this view. In its report on ex utero embryonic pre-implantation, for example, the NIH panel concluded that embryos “deserve special respect� and “serious moral consideration as a developing form of human life.�

But what, in fact, is “special respect?�

One way of understanding “serious moral consideration� is to recognize that, in certain cases, things that seemingly lack moral status can still have moral value. Most people would find it offensive, for example, to build a baseball field on top of sacred burial ground even though neither the piece of land nor the bodies buried underneath it are being offended or harmed. Rather, the moral significance of the land stems from a moral value: respect for the dead. Respect for the dead is a value intrinsic to nearly every culture.

Just as disrespect for the dead bothers us out of our respect for the living, so too might disrespect for embryos strike us as wrong. Embryos lack interests, rights, and moral status just like the dead, but they are symbols of life and should be treated with respect. Treating embryos with respect, however, does not necessarily mean that using them in important medical research is forbidden. Research in reproductive medicine, cancer, and other diseases has the potential for great human benefit, and using embryos in this manner—for important causes that could promote the interests of humanity as a whole—could be considered a noble, if not heroic, endeavor. However, using embryos for a high school science experiment or for cosmetic research seems unbefitting of our respect for human life. One criterion for allowing human embryonic research might be whether the goals of such research could be accomplished in any other way. If so, then perhaps pursuit of human embryonic research in that instance is unacceptable and, ultimately, disrespectful.

But what about those embryos frozen in fertility clinics? In the U.S. alone there are tens of thousands of such embryos. Couples are asked to decide if they want them destroyed, donated to other couples, or used for research. Some couples cannot make the decision, and the embryos remain frozen for years. In Great Britain the maximum amount of time for storage is 5 years, and several thousand abandoned embryos are destroyed each year. Some have described this practice as “a prenatal massacre.� However, is keeping these abandoned embryos frozen forever more respectful than discarding them or using them in valuable research? It seems more reasonable to think of respect for human embryos as arising from limitations on the ways in which they can be utilized for other purposes—not from the manner in which they are disposed.

Perhaps parties on either side of the great stem cell divide can find some common ground. President Bush may be wrong to equate human embryos with full-fledged adult human beings, but affording respect for human embryos is not necessarily incompatible with embryo research. The moral crux of the issue is not whether human embryo research per se is acceptable, but rather whether some research questions are worth answering.

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