Drawing lines in the shifting sand

Future Tense for Jul. 23, 2007

By Steve Welker

“Where you stand on the death penalty comes down to one question,” one of my old editors insisted. “If someone brutally raped and murdered your wife, how would you want him punished?”

What results can we get by reducing other public-policy questions to such simple, highly personal terms?

That old editor is one of the few people I’ve ever met who majored in philosophy in college. He came to the newspaper world with a razor-sharp mind that sliced through fallacious arguments (many politicians hated him, but just about all of them respected him), probed fearlessly into painful ethical questions and built overpowering logical arguments on foundations of fact.

I’ve posed his capital-punishment question to many people over the years. Execute the murderer or jail him? There is no "right" answer. Each man decides for himself. I hadn’t thought about this until now, but it's a gender-specific question and depends on a man's marital status. Anyway, my answer years ago, and still today, is that I want the murderer locked up in the nation’s most brutal prison for the rest of his life to suffer for his crime for years. But just because I don't believe in capital punlishement for that crime does _not_ mean I believe in eliminating capital punishment for all crimes.

Let's probe another example from a more-recent public-policy discussion.

I’d like to ask the old editor his opinion of this question:

“If your child had a terminal illness that could be cured with stem cells, would you want one of his or her mother’s eggs to be fertilized and grown into an embryo that provides the needed stem cells to save your first child's life?”

Now, while contemplating an answer to that question, try this one. Same situation except, instead of stopping with the embryo — a few dozen cells no larger than a period at the end of a sentence — would you let the fetus grow into a baby whose parts will be harvested to save the older child?

It’s not hard to come up with these questions and, I believe, a lot more. Many more, certainly, than were addressed in Congress last year when it debated and passed three laws related to stem cell research.

President Bush vetoed one stem-cell law, as you know, but let’s not forget that a clear majority in the Senate approved the law, 63-37, and a majority of the House voted against the president, though it fell 51 votes short of the two-thirds necessary to overturn the veto. The majority in Congress reflected the majority in the nation, too, where about 70 percent of adults say they favor embryonic stem-cell research.

The president vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funds to be spent studying stem cells in embryos left over from fertility treatments. Right now, a previous law signed by the president permits federal spending on research into only two-dozen lines of embryonic stem cells created before 2001.

President Bush offered several explanations for vetoing the bill, but one particular thing he said caught my attention: “I felt like crossing this line would be a mistake, and once crossed we would find it almost impossible to turn back. Crossing the line would needlessly encourage a conflict between science and ethics that can only do damage to both, and to our nation as a whole.’’

Let’s dissect that statement as my old editor might. If “crossing the line” means studying stem cells from embryos, the United States has already crossed the line. Has crossing the line “needlessly encouraged a conflict between science and ethics that can only do damage to both”? Clearly, no. If anything, research into stem cells and their potential has proven the need for even more discussion about science and ethics. The president’s argument fails reductio ad absurdum.

Am I upset that the president vetoed additional embryonic stem-cell research? Not particularly. Other research is going on right now, albeit without much federal funding, and using stem cells from embryos in addition to the federally licensed group. If anything, U.S. researchers may be at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in other countries whose governments support embryonic stem cell studies. But on the other hand, the president’s approach arguably has encouraged U.S. scientists to concentrate more on adults’ stem cells and in that field we could lead other nations.

No, my main concern is that the president’s veto may encourage some people to believe this issue is settled when, in my opinion, it needs much more study and investigation. With all due respect to my old editor, some issues are too complex to be reduced to a simple yes or no, black or white, blue or red.

Consider the president’s dilemma. He said he would not allow embryos produced as part of fertility treatments — that is to say, embryos conceived with the intention of bringing some to full term in a mother’s womb — for use in stem-cell research. But what about embryos created specifically for research, with no intention of ever letting them develop further?

Or this: The president said the fertility-clinic embryos have the potential of becoming children and, to drive home his point, brought out some families whose children came from other couples’ excess embryos. There have been 128 of these children born since 1997. However, the fertility clinics have an estimated 400,000 embryos on ice. Some were not implanted because they have fatal defects, but nevertheless may be suitable for embryonic stem cell studies. They and almost all of the excess embryos eventually will be destroyed, so what is the difference whether they are incinerated, flushed down a drain or used in medical research?

The president’s veto put an end to one year’s stem-cell legislation. It will not end the deeply important national debate about the scientific and ethical implications of using embryonic stem cells ... in the future.

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