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Pro-life groups react to Bush's stem-cell decision allowing federal funding


Like most pro-life advocates, including Cardinal Egan, Detective Steven McDonald had a mixed reaction to President Bush's decision last week to provide federal funds for some types of embryonic stem-cell research. He sees such research as a violation of the sanctity of human life, but thinks the president "did the best he could do" given political circumstances.

McDonald's view is more personal than political, however. Confined to a wheelchair and a ventilator for the past 15 years, he could benefit directly from medical advances using embryonic stem cells. Yet the New York City cop, whose spinal cord was severed by a teenager's bullet in the line of duty, says that he will not accept any treatment based on embryonic research, not even research confined to the 60 already existing cell lines which President Bush said he will fund.

The president said that he approves of such research because the "life and death decision has already been made" and it will not involve any new destruction of human embryos.

McDonald understands the distinction but rejects the conclusion. "If I could get out of this wheelchair, I would love to, and do what an able-bodied father and husband is able to do," he said. "But I'm not going to benefit in any way from research on embryos" that have been destroyed.

Cardinal Egan called the Bush decision, announced in a national telecast Aug. 9, "both encouraging and disappointing."

The cardinal said in a statement Aug. 13 that the president's address was encouraging "because it unconditionally condemned the cloning of human beings,...rejected the creation of a human embryo" for research purposes and expanded significantly federal funding "for research on stem cells derived from adults, the placenta and the umbilical cord."

He called the address disappointing, however, because it "authorized tax dollars for experimentation on the stem cell lines of embryos that had been killed, thus at least appearing to grant a measure of approval to the killing of a human being in the embryonic stage."

"With all of this in mind, my voice is added to those who earnestly invite the president to reconsider his decision," Cardinal Egan said.

"His original opposition to all embryonic stem cell research was wise, courageous and worthy of the leader of a nation founded on the premise that every human being at every stage in his or her life enjoys an inalienable right to live," he said.

The complexity of the moral issues involved in the Bush decision is underlined by the fact that some pro-life organizations revised their initial statements. Joseph Scheidler's Pro-Life Action League in Chicago, Ill., changed its headline statement from "Bush Decision Praiseworthy" to "Bush Decision Helps and Hurts."

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, raised a strong note of caution from the outset, stating, "The federal government, for the first time in history, will support research that relies on the destruction of some defenseless human beings for possible benefit of others. However such a decision is hedged about with qualifications, it allows our nation's research enterprise to cultivate a disrespect for human life...

"We hope and pray that President Bush will return to a principled stand against treating some human lives as nothing more than objects to be manipulated and destroyed for research purposes," the bishop concluded.

Particularly disappointing to many pro-life advocates was the fact that Bush addressed the question of the humanity of the embryo without coming to a conclusion. After asking "are the embryos human life," he proceeded to give the competing views of a researcher who called them "pre-embryos" incapable of developing on their own, and an ethicist who told him "we are dealing with the seeds of the next generation."

The president himself did not say which view he accepted, though he did state later in his talk, "I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life and believe, as your president, I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world."

Pro-life leaders applauded Bush for coming out strongly against human cloning by saying that "the most noble ends do not justify any means" and that the majority of Americans recoil "at the idea of growing human beings for spare body parts or creating life for our own convenience."

They also were encouraged by his acknowledgment of the medical benefits being derived from research on adult stem cells, umbilical cords and human placentas, which carry no ethical problems. Bush said that the government will provide $250 million this year on such research.

He also announced the formation of a president's council to monitor stem cell research chaired by Dr. Leon Kass, a physician and biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago.

A White House release after the address stated that federal funds will be spent on "the more than 60 existing stem-cell lines" that were derived with the informed consent of the donors, from "excess" embryos created solely for reproductive and not research purposes, and without any financial inducements to the donors. The National Institutes of Health will develop a registry of cell lines that fit the criteria.

Bush considered his decision on embryonic stem cells for months, consulting with numerous scientists, medical ethicists, theologians, religious leaders and fellow politicians. Even after hearing the strong words against destructive embryo research by Pope John Paul II last month during a personal visit to the Vatican, Bush still expressed ambivalence on the issue.

Throughout his deliberations, he tried to cast both sides of the issue in life-affirming terms. The research could bring relief and healing to millions suffering from diseases such as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Yet it carried serious moral considerations for those who see the embryo, which is destroyed in stem-cell research, as an early form of human life. In his national address, he said the ethicist told him, "That cluster of cells is the same way you and I and all the rest of us started our lives."

His compromise position tries to address both concerns, yet still raises serious questions. As Bishop Fiorenza points out, by approving research on cell lines developed from embryos that already have been killed, the president affords these embryos less dignity than he would give to humans already born. Such reasoning could also lead to approving the taking of vital organs from an executed convict, and even killing him in a way that would best preserve the organs.

Bishop Fiorenza stated that Bush's compromise position takes the foundation from the pro-life argument that all human life is sacred, and it will not satisfy or stop those who continue to push for destructive embryo research.

"The president's policy may therefore prove to be as unworkable as it is morally wrong, ultimately serving only those whose goal is unlimited embryo research," the bishop said.

A similar point was made by Ken Connor, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council. "By permitting research on existing stem-cell lines obtained by past killings of embryos, Mr. Bush attempts to put a redemptive gloss on previous bad acts," he said. This will encourage congressmen to push the limits further because "the issue will no longer be whether such research ought to be permitted, but rather how many cell lines are enough. Having introduced the camel's nose under the tent, soon we will have the whole beast."