The Real Culture of Life

Are conservatives catching up with the rest of America on bioethics?


The true "culture of life" got a big boost in the United States Senate last week. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Republican majority leader, announced that he would support legislation aimed at overturning President George W. Bush's restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research. President Bush limited federal support to the very few embryonic stem cell lines derived before August 9, 2001.

Traditional conservatives such as Sens. Frist and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have now joined the huge majority of scientists, doctors, patient advocates and the broader American public in favoring human embryonic stem cell research. A CBS News poll on July 13–14 found that 56 percent of Americans approve of medical research using embryonic stem cells while just 30 percent disapprove. Frist's support for stem cell research makes it even clearer that the president and his ultra-conservative bioethical advisors, such as Leon Kass, who heads up the President's Council on Bioethics, are way out of step with the desires of the American public.

A month after the president imposed his restrictions on research in 2001, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report noting that as many as 100 million Americans suffering from such maladies as heart disease, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, and diabetes could one day be cured by treatments using stem cells, including those derived from embryos. Even setting aside the question of direct federal funding, the Bush Administration limits have chilled research efforts. For example, worried that further restrictions might be imposed, Roger Pederson, a leading American stem cell researcher left the University of California in San Francisco to pursue his work at the University of Cambridge in Britain. And few young researchers will risk their careers pursuing research that they fear could be banned.

Embryonic stem cells are derived from to 3 to 5 day old frozen embryos that are leftover from fertility treatments and which would normally be discarded. These embryos, consisting of 150 or so cells, can produce cells that can grow into any type of tissue in the human body. Currently, only 22 stem cell lines qualify for federal support and researchers note that these early lines have flaws including possible contamination from animal viruses. Since 2001, scores of new more robust stem cell lines that more suitable for research and perhaps even therapies have been created.

When President Bush placed his limits on Federal embryonic stem cell research in 2001, even he acknowledged that "scientists believe further research using stem cells offers great promise that could help improve the lives of those who suffer from many terrible diseases." He further added that scientists "believe that stem cells from embryos have unique potential." Yet the President noted that "that cluster of cells is the same way you and I, and all the rest of us, started our lives."

The President is right that all people were once embryos, but the fact is that the vast majority of embryos do not become people. In testimony before the President's own Council on Bioethics, embryologists explained that as many as 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are lost—they never grow beyond a few tens of cells before leaving the bodies of millions of women every year unnoticed. We do not mourn the loss of, nor do we think of trying to rescue, these millions of naturally conceived embryos because we know that, whatever their potential, they are not yet people. Similarly, 3 to 5 day old frozen embryos leftover from in vitro fertilization attempts are not people either.

In the face of Bush administration limits on research, several states have taken the extraordinary step of financing stem cell research themselves including a $3 billion initiative passed by the voters of California last year. In May, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would lift the Bush administration research restrictions, and now, thanks to Sen. Frist's bold step, the Senate seems poised to do the same thing. It's time that President Bush recognize that advocating a true culture of life means promoting research to help Americans who are living and suffering now rather than focusing on tiny clusters of cells that nature—and for believers, nature's God—already so profligately destroys.