Politics & Policy

Frist’s Folly

Pity Bill Frist’s speechwriter. In preparing the Senate Majority Leader’s speech on stem-cell research, this hapless scribe had to figure out a way to make all his boss’s contradictory assertions appear as a coherent whole. The speech would have to announce Frist’s support for federal funding for research that destroys human embryos taken from fertility clinics. But Frist also wanted to say that he remained pro-life. Frist wanted to talk about all of the conditions that he wanted to place on the funding. But he also wanted to endorse a bill that does not meet those conditions.

Whoever wrote the speech hit on the only practical solution: just brazen it through; barrel along as though every sentence followed logically from the one before it. So Frist said, “An embryo is nascent human life. . . . [It] has moral significance and moral worth. It deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported.” The next sentence is the closest Frist got to squaring the circle: “But, just as I said in 2001, [the research] should advance in a manner that affords all human life dignity and respect–the same dignity and respect we bring to the table as we work with children and adults to advance the frontiers of medicine and health.”

You can see the problem here. We do not allow, let alone subsidize, the killing of children and adults involved in medical research. If a human embryo is a living human being to be treated with “the same dignity and respect” as those children and adults, then it’s hard to see how one can subsidize its killing. Frist’s conditions–conditions even he does not take seriously enough to insist on–cannot get him out of this dilemma.

Frist’s speechwriter also, apparently, gave up on trying to explain why it is necessary to make U.S. taxpayers, many of whom recognize the wrongness of this research, to fund it. The closest Frist got to that explanation was this line: “While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases.” The “limitations” are quite modest. The private sector is free to finance research on human embryos from fertility clinics, or any other source. State governments are funding the research, too–lavishly, in the case of California. Frist did not acknowledge these facts. In any case, if ethical limits on research must be discarded whenever they may slow down research, then there can be no ethical limits: not even the ones Frist halfheartedly claims to want.

Pro-lifers–Frist’s fellow pro-lifers, we suppose, based on his self-description–first heard that Frist was going to make his speech in the New York Times. That newspaper, predictably, urged him to go further. It is pleased that he favors federally funded research on “leftover” embryos at fertility clinics. But it also wants him to come out for federally funded research on human embryos that have been created, through cloning, for the purpose of the research. If the record of other politicians who initially claimed to support research only on leftover embryos, and not on cloned embryos, is any guide, Frist will make that announcement in 2006 or 2007.

“If the Frists of the world do not find their moral bearings and pro-lifers do not adjust their strategy, there will be no limit to the horrors we will countenance in the name of science.”

There are no limits on cloning, either; no limits on research using human fetuses; no limits on the creation of human-animal hybrids. This is mostly the fault of politicians such as Frist, whose opposition to unethical research is mostly rhetorical. But it must be said that pro-lifers have some of the responsibility as well. They have mostly been playing defense: trying to keep restrictions on federal funding for embryo-killing research. The one attempt at a strategic offense–a bill to ban human cloning–has been stalled in the Senate for several years. A realistic, and therefore effective, offense would seek to ban what can and should be banned today: for example, research on embryos older than 14 days. (Let the biotech industry and its ideologues explain what would be wrong with that.) Yet pro-lifers have not adopted this strategy. They have not even gone on the tactical offense, by attempting to attach a ban on cloning to the funding bill Frist just endorsed. They are afraid that any such strategy would tacitly concede the acceptability of whatever forms of research it left alone.

There is some time to correct this strategy. Assuming, as we do, that President Bush will veto any attempt to subsidize embryo-destructive research, there will be no such subsidies until 2009 at the earliest. But most of the candidates for the presidency in 2008 are for the subsidies. And cloning threatens to develop into an (unregulated) industry even before then. If the Frists of the world do not find their moral bearings and pro-lifers do not adjust their strategy, there will be no limit to the horrors we will countenance in the name of science.


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