Despite strong bipartisan support, President Bush issued his very first presidential veto to thwart greater federal funding for stem cell research.
With the stroke of his pen, substantial funding for vital medical research wasn’t the only thing that was dashed; so was the hope of millions of Americans.
Researchers hoped to utilize just a few dozen embryos to create “lines” of self-reproducing cells for further stem cell research, and they had sought the power of federal funds to achieve this goal. Once self-reproducing stem cell “lines” exist in major university laboratories, no further use of embryos would be necessary.
Bush had previously called for bipartisanship on other issues, and though the stem cell bill was endorsed by members of both parties, he chose to side with religious conservatives and evangelical Christians in striking the bill.
The president’s veto, just like federal rules, applies only to institutions that accept federal grant money. Privately funded institutions will carry on unaffected. In fact, very little will change and there will be no further protections for unused embryos in fertility clinics.
In announcing his veto, Bush said, “This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.”
The problem with the president’s position is that the approximately 390 fertility clinics across the nation presently discard untold numbers of unused embryos anyway. In 2003, it was estimated that 400,000 embryos had been frozen and stored in those clinics. That number is surely higher now.
The creation and destruction of human embryos are simply part of the process of infertility treatments. Because that process is notoriously inefficient and costly, fertility clinics create multiple embryos at one time to promote a higher success rate. Fewer than one in three implanted embryos develops into a fetus, and eventually into a newborn.
To increase the odds of pregnancy, clinics often create six to 14 embryos per patient, implanting perhaps two or three while freezing the healthiest of those that remain. These can be thawed and used later if a repeat attempt is needed, although about 25 percent of the embryos stored this way do not survive. Some die during the freezing process, while others die when they are subsequently thawed.
Most clinics follow the wishes of the patient, allowing them to decide what happens to their own unused embryos. Patients have the option of donating their leftover embryos to another infertile couple, though that rarely happens. Many embryos remain frozen at clinics for years, and current freezing techniques may make it possible for frozen embryos to survive for decades. The rest are simply discarded.
While discarding unused embryos may sound cold or clinical, it’s important to consider that most embryos don’t survive the natural reproduction cycle, either.
Of all the embryos created through sexual intercourse, roughly three quarters do not last long enough to produce a baby. About half of the fertilized eggs are lost even before the woman misses her first period following conception.
Despite the fact that a days-old embryo has no brain, no central nervous system, no pain sensors, no consciousness, and no awareness of its environment – it simply has the potential to grow into a fetus that may become a newborn baby – some religious conservatives draw no distinction between an embryo and a baby. To them, they are exactly the same.
In fact Louisiana has bestowed a legal status equivalent to personhood on live embryos, and outlawed their destruction. If an embryo is frozen and later thawed, it must be with the intent of implanting it in a woman’s uterus.
Of course, this begs an obvious question; what’s the difference between a discarded embryo and one that’s perpetually frozen?
During a House debate on federal funding for stem cell research last year, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said that using leftover embryos from fertility clinics amounts to the “dismemberment of living, distinct human beings” because the embryos are destroyed during the research.
I was struck by this suggestion that embryos could be equated to “distinct human beings.” It is an off-the-charts leap of logic. An embryo is no more a distinct human being than the egg in my refrigerator is a distinct chicken. They’re not the same. Incredibly, there are idealogues in this country who put potential human life ahead of real, living human beings. And unfortunately, some of them are in positions of power.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the opposition to the “destruction” or discarding of embryos is tantamount to the opposition of invitro fertilization as well. It’s part of the process, so what’s the difference?
With recent polls showing that some two-thirds of Americans support embryonic stem cell research, and a majority favoring fewer restrictions on taxpayer funding of it, conservative politicians who pander to the religious right, like the President, are clearly in the minority.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a prominent conservative voice, had a change of conscience last summer. In a stunning turnaround, Frist surprised everyone by publicly changing his mind on this critical social issue. Breaking ranks with both President Bush and Representative Delay, Frist said, “It’s not just a matter of faith, it’s a matter of science.”
I was both amazed and relieved. Putting science, or fact, ahead of faith may be a matter of reason and logic to some of us, but to others it’s a truly novel idea. Thankfully, Frist has joined the ranks of the reasonable and the logical. Well, at least on this issue.
Due to federal restrictions, biomedical research has advanced overseas even while it has stalled in the U.S. Stem cell research could also lead to jobs, patents, and spur an entire industry. Ask any politician; jobs good, industry good.
But ideology has a remarkable way of interfering with reason.
Most supporters would agree; only embryos that would otherwise be discarded should be used for research, at the discretion of their owners of course. Those that could be adopted or implanted should not be used. This is entirely reasonable. If embryos are going to be disposed of anyway, why not use them for the benefit of humanity first?
After changing his mind, or his heart, Frist said, “I’m doing this as somebody who has convictions. This is not about politics. It is about policy. It is about principle. It is about human life.”
Try telling that to President Bush. His principles seem to dictate that one should never change one’s mind – at least not publicly. And one man’s principles are another man’s politics. President Bush, and other like-minded religious conservatives who oppose embryotic stem cells on moral grounds, aren’t really pro life – they’re pro birth. Embryotic stem cells are pro life.
The president’s veto will do nothing to protect “the taking of innocent human life,” as he put it. Instead, thousands of embryos will continue to be discarded anyway, just like they have been for many years, and no good will come of it.
Since the first IVF baby debuted in England in 1978, the number of embryos disposed of at fertility clinics is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands – compared with perhaps a few dozen that have perished for the purpose of creating lines of stem cells.
That’s the real sin. Those hundreds of thousands were discarded at no benefit. And with the president’s irrational veto, nothing has changed.
Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.