Less than a year after President Bush limited the federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) granted $150,000 to study the stem cells of aborted fetuses up to eight weeks old.
"This was a surprise and a disappointing one," said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council (FRC). "Our concern all along has been that life begins at conception and should be protected from conception on. The curious irony here is that older, more mature fetuses have less protection than is accorded to days-old embryos."
Bush's August 9, 2001 embryonic stem-cell decision limited federal funds to research on cell lines already cultivated. This stance on embryonic research is considerably stricter than the still active Clinton-era guidelines for fetal research, which state that the decision to abort has to be made before discussion of donating the fetus to science, no money can be exchanged, and those aborting the child cannot determine the use of the fetus's cells.
"We shouldn't have a set of guidelines that treat embryos and fetuses differently, especially when they give more protections to embryos than fetuses," said John F. Kilner, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
Explaining the discrepancy between the two policies, a White House spokesman told the Chicago Tribune that Bush left the Clinton-era fetal guidelines in place because of a 1993 law prohibiting presidents from banning fetal tissue research.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, told Christianity Today that the Bush administration's hands are tied on fetal research. However, he said the administration is rightly focusing its attention on other life ethics battles. "We could open our papers any day and read that human embryo farms have opened for business," Johnson said. "Because the Senate has failed to pass the ban on human cloning, we face an imminent danger. So that is where the administration, the White House, and the President are putting their focus. Facilities could start up any day that will be in the business of manufacturing members of the human species for the purpose of harvesting their parts. Fetal tissue is bad, but we are talking now about a whole quantum leap."
The Chicago Tribune reported on Sunday that the NIH "quietly" approved funds in late May for a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine led by John Gearhart. The grant will reportedly allow the scientists to study two insulin-producing stem-cell lines in researching diabetes treatments. The article has initiated calls for Bush to revoke the funding and apply stricter rules.
"Bush is trying to get enough protection as he can for human life," Kilner told CT. "It was his judgment that the most he could get was the step that he took, so we should be trying to take at least that same step in regard to fetuses. It would be a minimal, concrete step."
Connor said that because of Bush's commitment to life ethics, the President should not allow the NIH funding to stand. "The President has stated his opposition to abortion, stated his opposition to fetal tissue research, and entered an executive order limiting embryonic stem-cell researchthere is no way to reconcile this policy with the president's stated positions," he said. "I think it is imperative that the President show leadership. [Those in his administration] simply cannot wring their hands and furrow their brow and say they are constrained by the law."
The FRC yesterday issued a letter urging the president to revoke the funding. Connor told CT that if the 1993 law inhibits Bush, he hopes the administration would contest the law as being a violation of the separation of powers principle, which is designed to maintain proper checks and balances.
Using aborted fetuses for federally funded research, Connor says, would "create a perverse incentive to generate more aborted fetal tissue to service the needs of the research community."
Kilner said that the idea of aborted children being used for research could have a profound effect on those considering abortion. He said: "If obtaining stem cells and developing medical treatments becomes a part of what abortion is all about, it then becomes broad knowledge for all women who are making decisions on whether to do an abortion or not. Part of deciding to abort would become a means to do some good, a way to contribute to society."
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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