Bill Frist, Christian, physician, pro-lifer, esteemed Majority Leader of the Senate, and (we are told) presidential hopeful, has stepped out of the greatest of our debating chambers to make a second fateful speech on embryo stem cell research—this time, courtesy of Franklin Graham, at the Cove. Far from repenting of his sudden decision to break with President Bush and support the federally funded killing of "spare" embryos, Frist has chosen to use this august occasion to re-state it. He does so in measured terms, full of conscience and a desire to do the right thing. And while he still gets the stem-cell policy wrong, he underlines other issues that we neglect at our peril.

Of course, if Frist is conflicted on stem-cell policy, he is not alone. It would be much simpler if this nation were divided down the middle between women and men of conscience, who value the dignity of every human life from its very beginnings, and heartless killers, for whom profit jostles with carelessness every time they make a moral choice. Life is more complex.

Conscientious people are torn, they are divided, they may think one thing one day and another thing the next. Many wish they could have it both ways. They believe that we have to protect the embryo. And they want so much to fight disease that they are prepared to believe the hyped hope of Nancy Reagan and Ron Reagan, Jr., with their siren calls for "cures" that trump the claims of tiny embryos.

Bill Frist is also conflicted, and he speaks on both sides of the same debate. He is pro-life. He believes you should never "create a life … take a life, to save a life." Yet he has fallen under the spell of the "cures" argument. He is willing to make an exception: You should never take a life to save a life, unless "those embryos will—with 100 percent certainty—be otherwise discarded and destroyed."

Of course, such certainty is impossible. Who knows what would have happened to embryo A if scientist B did not have federal funding? Frist is quite willing to "take a life, to save a life," though he says otherwise. It's obvious enough that people who will die anyway should not be killed, let alone killed for our research benefit!

But Frist raises three other issues. First, he does not give the President full credit for his very distinctive position. He says that he differs from the President only in this way: "The President limits the number of cell lines to a specific date—August 9, 2001. I would limit the number of cell lines by a fully transparent, ethical decision-making process rather than a specific cutoff date." This makes the Bush position look arbitrary, while the Frist position seems "ethical" and "transparent."

Article continues below

In fact, the ethics of the Bush position is very different from that of Dr. Frist. The point about the "cutoff date" is that it was the date the President gave his famous televised speech to the American people. He said, in effect, I will not encourage anyone to kill one more embryo; all I will do is let you experiment on cell-lines cultured from the corpses of those "for whom the life and death decision has already been made." This is an ethical ocean away from the idea that we will only kill a few who are going to die anyway. His disagreement with the president's position is from an ethical point of view much bigger than he implies

But, on the other hand, Dr. Frist is completely out of step with the mainstream arguments being used by scientists—including Nobel laureates—who want to get on with embryonic stem-cell research on their own terms. They don't want a few more embryos. They want, quite literally, billons. They want fresh, choice, specially created, cloned embryos. They want "therapeutic cloning," the idea that has gripped the public imagination and is driving the push to overturn the Bush policy on stem-cell funding.

In its editorial commending Dr. Frist for breaking with the President, The New York Times urged him to go one more step and support cloning the embryos. But Dr. Frist is horrified by cloning for research. He is entirely opposed to fetal farms, and human-animal chimeras, and the other horrors that lie in store. We hope we can look to him to challenge the inhuman ambitions of biotech researchers and lobbyists as they move far beyond the funding of embryo research to the full-blown Brave New World of human commodification and "cures" at any price. We look to him to use his immense influence as Majority Leader in ensuring that the Senate finally passes the Brownback-Landrieu cloning ban, bringing the U.S. into line with states as diverse as Germany, France, Australia, and Canada—and the recent United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning. Should he not, at the least, make the cloning ban a key condition of his support for loosening embryonic stem-cell research funding?

Moreover, his Cove speech lays out a series of these horrors, and suggests that his stem-cell funding move is key to stopping them in their tracks: cloning, fetal farming for body parts, human-animal combos, "scientists playing God." "If we don't act," he states, "others who do not share our values will define the rules."

Article continues below

To be candid, this is somewhat bizarre. Why, we must ask, if overturning the Bush ban on funding destructive embryo research is the key to stopping the chamber of horrors, is much of the Senate support for overturning that ban coming from lawmakers who also favor cloning for research?

Far from hastening the horribles, the Bush stem-cell funding policy has been the line in the sand that is holding them at bay. Not only did the nation rally round the President in August of 2001, but socialist Germany copied his position (exactly) because of its wisdom and practicality, and the 25-member European Union came close to following suit. On the other hand, the biotech industry and its surrogates, who have so far been successful in preventing a cloning ban from passing the Senate, want far more than a few extra embryos.

Yet however much we may agree with the President's policy, we welcome Dr. Frist's re-stated commitment to fight the evils of unethical biotech, and we look to his leadership and determination to stave off the evils of the Brave New World.

Other headlines

Looking Ahead: "Scientific and technological advances produce new benefits for consumers, new controversies for politicians, and new legal issues for the Supreme Court. A future Justice Harriet Miers or Chief Justice John Roberts, sitting on the high court for a couple of decades, just might have to decide whether sentient robots have some rights, whether scientists have a right to clone humans for use in experiments, and even whether judges should retire at the age of, say, 126." So writes journalist Neil Munro in National Journal for October 8.

A Cloning Star: Bernard Siegel, the affable Florida attorney who has become one of the major boosters of cloning for research, has received his reward from the Stem Cell Action Network in the form of their 2005 Stem Cell Advocate award. There's no doubt that Bernie Siegel has been busy: he has lobbied the UN on cloning (unsuccessfully) and staged various high-profile stunts and pulled together famous names to sponsor his Genetics and Policy Center.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
Previous Life Matters Columns: