Being pro-life used to mean, at a minimum, that you believe life begins at conception and that this life is worthy of protection at all stages of development. Sen. Bill Frist would like to "modify" that just a bit.

First, a little background. On August 9, 2001, you'll recall, President Bush announced a compromise. He would allow federal funding of embryonic stem-cell (ESC) research. But he restricted this government support to the 78 or so ESC lines that had already been created as of that date, "where the life and death decision has already been made." Thus, Bush said that the government should not encourage, nor should taxpayers pay for, research that involves the destruction of human life. At that time, Frist, who is a heart- and lung-transplant physician, announced he would support the policy.

Scientists value stem cells because of their purported ability to grow into other kinds of tissue and inaugurate a new era of regenerative medicine. "In all forms of stem-cell research," Dr. Frist said Friday, "I see today … great promise to heal. Whether it's diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, or spinal cord injuries, stem cells offer hope for treatment that other lines of research cannot offer."

Currently, there are two kinds of stem cells. The first is so-called adult stem cells, derived from umbilical cord blood and other areas of the human body. So far adult stem cells have provided treatments for at least 65 conditions in humans.

The second kind comes from human embryos. Scientists value these ESCs because they are pluripotent, having the ability to become any kind of human tissue. ESCs also have the ability to reproduce themselves indefinitely. So far, however, after 24 years of research using both mouse and human embryonic stem cells, no ESC-based treatments for humans have yet emerged. Taken out of their natural environment, embryonic stem cells are hard to control and have shown a propensity to grow into tumors and other unwanted tissues.

Another problem: Extracting ESCs currently involves killing human embryos. Thus, for this research to go forward, nascent human life must be sacrificed. It is worth noting that most of the anticipated cures from ESC research are highly speculative, while the scientific literature about the benefits of actual adult-cell treatments for heart patients and many others is growing steadily.

To many people who view life as more than simply a source of raw materials for scientific experimentation, that is an unacceptable trade-off. The Republican policy has been to enthusiastically support adult stem-cell research, which does not involve killing human embryos, but to oppose embryonic stem-cell research.

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Unfortunately, thanks in no small measure to scientists who don't like government restraints on science and to a compliant media, few Americans (who may have relatives struggling with Alzheimer's or other dread conditions) are aware of the differences between adult and embryonic stem cell research. Most want to see all of it fully funded. America, they reason, has long been the world leader in science and should remain so.

The Bush restrictions started to take on water in May when the House of Representatives passed a bill, H.R. 810, to remove the funding restrictions and allow researchers to extract stem cells from among the estimated 400,000 "excess" human embryos in cold storage at fertility clinics nationwide. After all, the reasoning went, if these embryos created through IVF were destined to be thrown out anyway, why "waste" them? Nevertheless, Bush promised to veto any such bill that reached his desk, and pro-life leaders assumed Frist would stand with him.

But on Friday, with growing clamor to remove Bush's restrictions from the public, scientists, biotech firms, and members of his own party, Frist, the Senate majority leader, proposed some minor "adjustments" to the President's policy. The Tennessee Republican, noting that only 22 ESC lines (not 78) are actually suitable for research, said it is time to allow federal funding for research using excess embryos created for fertility treatments—in other words, among those 400,000 frozen embryos that "would otherwise be discarded and destroyed."

Frist, while opposing human cloning, said both federal funding and federal oversight of ESC research should be expanded, "carefully and thoughtfully staying within ethical bounds." Of course, how ethical is it to switch from prohibiting the killing of embryonic human life to encouraging it—even paying for it?

Yes, Dr. Frist maintains he is still pro-life. "I believe human life begins at conception," Frist said, as if to reassure activists of his pro-life credentials. "It is at this moment that the organism is complete—yes, immature—but complete. An embryo is nascent life. It's genetically distinct. And it's biologically human. It's living. This position is consistent with my faith. But to me, it isn't just a matter of faith. It's a fact of science."

Frist went on: "Our development is a continuous process—gradual and chronological. We were all once embryos. The embryo is human life at its earliest stage of development. And accordingly, the human embryo has moral significance and moral worth. It deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect."

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But in his next breath, with a marvelous burst of logical and moral incoherence, Frist stated, "I also believe that embryonic stem-cell research should be encouraged and supported." In other words, treating human embryos with "the utmost dignity and respect" includes killing them for research—as long as that killing is done "within ethical bounds." That's pro-life?

Regardless of the senator's political and moral calculus in deciding to oppose the Bush compromise, the flip-flop was unnecessary. As Frist himself noted, scientists and ethicists are now looking at four methods that may yield pluripotent stem cells that do not involve the destruction of nascent human life. These are extracting stem cells from dead embryos; developing non-harmful ways of extracting them from living embryos; extracting them from artificially created "non-embryos"; and reprogramming adult cells to pluripotency via fusion with embryonic cell lines. New scientific research indicates that adult stem cells may indeed be more flexible than previously believed, and more available.

No, none of these approaches has been proven, but they show great promise—and without the moral dilemma of killing human embryos. As Frist noted, "[T]hey may bridge moral and ethical differences among people who now hold very different views on stem-cell research." That bridging is essential if we as a society are to move ahead on this potential scientific breakthrough without the kind of acrimony that has accompanied the abortion issue, for example.

The scientific and the moral questions have barely begun to be asked. Our society has survived for centuries without killing human embryos for research. We have time, and we must take that time to carefully weigh our choices at this pivotal moral moment in history.

And besides, there's no law against ESC research. The President's policy speaks only to federal funding. Those who are convinced of the scientific necessity and economic potential of sacrificing embryos now may do so without penalty. While many pro-lifers may not like it, ESC research is currently legal.

In fact, David Greenwood, a vice president of the biotech firm Geron, one of the leading corporations doing embryonic stem-cell research, told me federal funding is irrelevant. Geron, he said, depends on investors and international partners to fund its research. As long as ESC research is legal, let these groups get money from investors, not taxpayers. That's what free-market capitalism is for.

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Finally, Frist's flip-flop reminds Christians that we cannot rely on any political party—even one officially "pro-life"—to always make moral (or even logical) decisions. While we may make temporary alliances with this politician or that, ultimately we do not belong to any party. We belong to Jesus Christ.

Stan Guthrie is senior associate news editor of Christianity Today. His website may be found at

Related Elsewhere:

CT reported on Frist's support of embryonic stem-cell research last week.

More CT articles on stem cells includes:

It's Not About Stem Cells | Why we must clarify the debate over harvesting embryos.—A Christianity Today editorial (Sept. 29, 2004)
The Proposition 71 Stem Cell Scam | The biotech lobby is attempting to buy a law in California, Wesley J. Smith says. (Aug. 17, 2004)
A Law That Shouldn't Be Cloned | New Jersey legalizes human cloning for research (Feb. 10, 2004)
Federal Funds Approved to Study Fetal Stem Cells | Life ethics advocates troubled by the discrepancy that allows days-old embryos more protection than more mature fetuses. (July 10, 2002)
Two Cheers | President Bush's stem-cell decision is better than the fatal cure many sought. (Aug. 10, 2001)