At first glance, President George Bush's August 9 announcement about federally funded stem-cell research looked an awful lot like Bill Clinton's 1999 decision. By wriggling through a loophole, both presidents avoided crossing the 1995 congressional ban on funding research that required the destruction of embryos. Both plans fund research on stem-cells derived from previously destroyed embryos.

But there is a significant difference: Clinton's plan created an ongoing incentive for private suppliers to destroy more embryos to supply federally funded researchers; the Bush plan limits the federal funding to the 60 existing lines of embryonic stem cells—and, of course, the morally licit adult and umbilical cord stem cells.

The Family Research Council's Ken Connor reminds us that seeking to reap a therapeutic harvest from illicitly derived stem cells is still "the fruit of the poisonous tree" and puts the President "on the wrong side of the principle." Then again, President Bush has actually pulled our society a few feet back up the slippery slope the Clinton administration put us on. And given the realities and pressures of this debate—in which high-profile conservative Republicans like Senator Orrin Hatch joined the opposition—we can give Bush's compromise two cheers.

But we give three cheers to his choice of advisers. Further decisions will be made in connection with a "a president's council to monitor stem-cell research." The council is to be headed by medical ethicist Leon Kass, who has most recently distinguished himself in his arguments against human cloning.

Kass is no interloper on scientific turf. He is a University of Chicago-trained surgeon with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard. But unlike many scientists in this debate, he is not overly impressed with the moral bearings of those on the leading edge of research. In a paper published by the Rand Corporation, Kass writes about "the moral meaning of genetic technology, including stem-cell research": "We triumph over nature's unpredictabilities only to subject ourselves, tragically, to the still greater unpredictability of our capricious wills and our fickle opinions. Engineering the engineer, as well as the engine, we race our train we know not where. This. … is the truest moral meaning of today's wonderful biomedical technology. … It is only our infatuation with scientific progress and our naÏve faith in the sufficiency of our benevolently humanitarian impulses that prevent us from recognizing it."

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Do No Harm

Those suspicions are the best context for the president's council, as it considers the many unresolved questions. We call on the council to keep the following in mind:

• A powerful lobby of scientists, biotech capitalists, patient advocates, and politicians want to use human embryos (especially the frozen surplus from fertility clinics) to find miracle cures for millions of people with diseases caused by defective human genes or traumatic injury. It will be hard to say no to these advocacy groups when they promise amazing cures and a virtual fountain of youth in our brave new biotech future.

• "Any being that is human is a human being," wrote the Ramsey Colloquium in 1995. "If it is objected that, at five days or fifteen days, the embryo does not look like a human being, it must be pointed out that this is precisely what a human being looks like—and what each of us looked like—at five or fifteen days of development."

When prolife politicians forget that and appeal to the medical good that could come from embryonic stem-cell research, they create a class of subhumans (the unborn) and falsely pit embryos against the needs of desperately sick people. They also surrender a fundamental principle of prolife understanding: It is not right to sacrifice one human being for the good or convenience of another.

• To speak of "surplus" human life, as the lobby does, is morally offensive. No human life is dispensable, even if the intended use is good. Parental consent and donation of a "surplus" embryo provides no moral justification. If it did, we would have long ago gained permission to experiment on fetuses before they are aborted.

• Embryonic stem cells are not our only resource. The National Institutes of Health and advocacy groups downplay the potential of alternative research on adult stem cells, saying that they are hard to locate and may not multiply as well as "younger cells." But in early July, the Do No Harm coalition issued its own survey of medical research. The coalition concluded that the potential of adult stem cells "is as great or greater than the potential offered by embryonic stem-cell research." Embryonic stem cells may actually provoke an immune reaction in patients, form tumors inside a patient's body, and have not yet been successful in clinical trials.

• Science has a morally tainted legacy. Mengele's government-sponsored twin studies at Auschwitz and the government-sponsored Tuskegee study that allowed African-American men to die from syphilis serve as painful reminders that scientific research must be moral in both means and ends.

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A clear principle has emerged from the global debates over human experimentation: It is immoral to perform research on people with "diminished autonomy." Those who are mentally ill, significantly disabled, or immature are not in a position to volunteer for a research experiment. They merit protection.

Our Christian faith obligates us to speak on behalf of the voiceless. A ban on federal financing for research that destroys human embryos—a ban that we endorse—is not enough. Privately funded, for-profit research that destroys or clones human embryos should also be outlawed. Fertilization clinics are creating too many human embryos. These unwanted embryos should be made available for adoption.

God's design for an individual life is evident from its initial cell, and we should protect that life at every stage. To be sure, stem-cell research should be pursued to help those who suffer; thus we urge President Bush to avoid any future decisions that condone the destruction of embryos and to increase funding for research on stem cells from morally acceptable sources.

Related Elsewhere

A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

See the transcript of the speech.

Media coverage of Bush's decision included The Washington Post, New York Times, and Christianity Today'sWeblog.

For more on the stem-cell debate, see Yahoo Full Coverage.

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