LAST WEEK President Bush for the second time vetoed legislation that would have expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Reiterating a position he first announced in 2001, the president said that while he supports research on stem cells derived from human embryos that no longer exist, he will not use taxpayers' money for work that relies on the destruction of additional embryos.
"Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical, and it is not the only option before us," Bush said. That was a reference to promising advances in stem cell technology -- for example, the discovery that such cells can be harvested from amniotic fluid without endangering any embryo. The vetoed bill would have supported research on stem cells drawn from surplus fertility clinic embryos that will otherwise be discarded. Nevertheless, in Bush's view that would "cross a moral and ethical line."
Stem cells may eventually yield the key to treating devastating conditions, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, or spinal-cord injuries. Opinion polls show wide support for this research, so Bush's critics have not hesitated to pile on. Demagogues all but claim that if it weren't for Bush, fewer people would now be suffering from terrible afflictions. ("If we do . . . the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again" -- John Edwards, Oct. 11, 2004.)
I don't share Bush's position. By my lights, a microscopic "test-tube" embryo left over from in vitro fertilization is not a human person with an inalienable right to life. But neither is it of no significance whatsoever. I wouldn't draw the "moral and ethical line" where Bush has drawn it, but surely there is such a line and surely it belongs somewhere. A human embryo is not just another raw material, to be manipulated or destroyed at will. Even in nascent form, human life must be treated with dignity and care. How and under what circumstances embryos can be harvested for their stem cells are not just scientific questions. First they are questions of ethics and morality, and of the values we wish to live by . . . .