Human suffering demands embryonic research

President George W. Bush is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He will make a decision, likely in the next month, on whether or not to allow the use of human embryos for medical research. The issue has quickly divided politicians, health officials and right-to-lifers across the country.

Bush’s health policy administrators, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, say research on embryonic stem cells could lead to new treatments and possible cures for a wide range of diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injuries. In fact, a National Institutes of Health report last month announced stem-cell research recently led to treatments that reversed symptoms of diabetes in mice.

Human embryos contain stem cells that can reproduce themselves, eventually creating a human body. They are newly formed, microscopic cells that grow just a few days after fertilization. They do not have feet or hands or a heartbeat – they are just a tiny ball of cells. But the key is that these stem cells are regenerative, which is one reason researchers are so interested. Research is already being performed on newly discovered adult stem cells, but medical experts believe much more can be learned from the embryonic cells.

But there is an obvious reverse to this debate. Using human embryos for research begs the question of when human life begins, and its approval would enrage many of the same people already angry about legalized abortion. Opponents argue the research will destroy embryos, thereby killing a human to obtain research material. Yet when possible cures for many serious or life-threatening diseases and debilitating injuries hang in the
balance of pin-tip-sized clusters of cells, the research should be allowed.

Understandably, Bush is torn between his conservative supporters and what his own administration claims could be profound effects on the future of medicine. But in the end, he should not base public policy on the theory that these microscopic cells equal a human life. Granted, the potential for life is there. But more importantly, research on these cells will likely reveal treatments and cures for conditions that affect millions who are already living.

The embryos used are those created but unused during fertility treatments. They are otherwise destroyed. Scientists claim the embryos are normally less than one week old and each contain between 200 and 250 stem cells. Those who believe life begins at conception argue those cells have a soul and a potential for life that should not be terminated for research or any other purpose.

While President Bill Clinton was still in office, he reached a compromise that permitted federally funded researchers to work with stem cells from embryos destroyed by others, but they were not allowed to destroy embryos themselves.

Bush suspended those rules and is in search of his own compromise. Many political, health and religious leaders have taken sides on the issue. On Tuesday, U.S. House Republican leaders asked Bush to prohibit the research, saying it depends on “an industry of death.” But even some conservatives who oppose legalized abortion, including Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have voiced public support for the research.

The Roman Catholic Church and many anti-abortion groups oppose stem-cell research, and Pope John Paul II said last year that embryos were humans with rights from the moment of fertilization.

To agree that embryonic cells should not be used for research is to hold up the most extreme right-to-life argument. Public policy should now be based on the rights of microscopic clusters of cells that have no resemblance to anything human. Millions of already-living people should suffer and die because doing research with embryos already being discarded would be an unofficial decision that they are not human and, therefore, that life does not begin at conception. In order to avoid that silent assumption, scientists should disregard the potential to find cures for horrible diseases, ignoring embryos that will continue to be created and destroyed by clinics.

The argument is ridiculous.

President Bush has a difficult decision to make here: Do the right thing or bend to the political pressure of conservative politicians, anti-abortion groups and the Catholic Church, not to mention many Republican voters.

The best compromise was reached by Bush’s predecessor. But by altering or rejecting the compromise just to appease his conservative supporters or to take the credit away from Clinton, Bush will be dashing the hopes of many suffering and dying people now and in the future.

Erin Ghere’s column appears weekly. She welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]