An Illogical Standard

Thursday, May 26, 2005

DURING THE DEBATE in the House on Tuesday over the stem cell research bill that passed on a bipartisan vote, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) leveled a remarkable accusation: Supporters of liberalizing President Bush's restrictive approach to funding stem cell research, he said, were voting "to fund with taxpayer dollars the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation." Mr. DeLay called embryonic stem cell research, which may promise lifesaving treatments for various devastating conditions, a "scientific exploration into the potential benefits of killing human beings." Reasonable people can disagree regarding the morality of embryonic stem cell research, which we support. But if Mr. DeLay believes his irresponsible rhetoric, he should not stop at opposing more permissive rules for federal funding of such science. Instead he should introduce legislation to ban the in vitro fertilization treatments that create these embryos in the first place.

Describing stem cell research as dismembering human beings conjures politically useful images of a grisly, abortion-like procedure in which an unborn baby gets torn apart. It's hard, however, to be dismembered if one has no limbs -- being merely a cluster of a couple of hundred non-differentiated cells. These 5-day-old embryos get created all the time in fertility clinics to help people who otherwise could not have children. In a typical in vitro treatment, several more embryos are created than used, and the extras get frozen. Some do not survive the freezing process. Others are discarded at the requests of patients. A survey of fertility clinics in 2002 indicated that there were about 400,000 frozen embryos across the country. Many of these will never be implanted in a woman and will never become babies. All of this is commonplace and accepted because few people regard a group of cells that small as the moral equivalent of a human being. Yet, by Mr. DeLay's standards, each and every one of these embryos is a potential murder victim.

If Mr. DeLay really believes this, in vitro fertilization as practiced is legalized torture and murder on a mass scale. If a 5-day-old embryo is "a person," then putting it in a freezer -- let alone allowing it to expire in a petri dish or throwing it out -- should be no more acceptable for the goal of producing babies for the infertile than it is for discovering therapies that could help dying people. Nor should the issue be just federal funding but the legality of the practice itself. Mr. DeLay said yesterday in a news conference that he wanted to "look at" the issue of discarded embryos, that couples seeking in vitro fertilization need to be better informed and that there ought to be self-imposed standards on the part of medical organizations, and more "adoption" and implantation of surplus embryos. But he stopped short of supporting any federal regulation, let alone the sort of draconian restrictions it would take to stop what he evidently sees as a slaughter of innocents. This makes no sense. A society that accepts the routine destruction of embryos cannot treat as "dismemberment" the one means of destroying those embryos that might produce great breakthroughs in science and health.

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