President Bush vetoed legislation Wednesday passed by both the House and Senate that would have allowed federal funding for expanded embryonic stem cell research. In his veto message, Mr. Bush said, "If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers for the first time in our history would be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Crossing this line would be a grave mistake and would needlessly encourage a conflict between science and ethics that can only do damage to both and harm our Nation as a whole."
His spokesman, Tony Snow, took the argument one step further, stating, "The simple answer is he thinks murder's wrong. The president is not going to get on the slippery slope of taking something living and making it dead for the purposes of scientific research."
Five days later Mr. Snow recanted that assessment, saying his characterization was "overstating the president's position...He would not use that term."
But if embryonic stem cell research is tantamount to murder, then one might think that any president who approves of such research would be considered an accessory to the crime.
Thus it was ironic that in the same speech, Mr. Bush pointed out that, "When I took office, there was no Federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research." As he had in his first presidential debate with Senator John Kerry in September 2004, Mr. Bush then boasted that he was the first president to approve funding for embryonic stem cell research. "My Administration has made available more than $90 million for research of these lines. This policy has allowed important research to go forward and has allowed America to continue to lead the world in embryonic stem cell research without encouraging the further destruction of living human embryos," he added. "The president is not opposed to stem cell research, he's all for it," Snow said earlier in the day.
The sponsors of the legislation, Representatives Michael Castle (R-Del) and Diana DeGette (D-Col), specifically restricted the funding to research on stem cell lines derived from early embryos created by in vitro fertilization clinics and otherwise destined for destruction.
The Catholic Church forbids in vitro fertilization under any circumstances, a view not shared by at least half of American Catholics in several polls. A 1987 document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called Donum Vitae, said that use of in vitro fertilization creates a "dynamic of violence and domination." But Mr. Bush and the Republican Platform have never called for the banning of in vitro fertilization. The number of "embryo adoptions" in the US is fewer than 300, a tiny fraction of the more than 400,000 early embryos currently stored across the country. Most of these embryos could never practically be implanted, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has likened stem cell research on these early embryos to cadaveric transplantation of hearts to save the lives of people in heart failure. Several polls of American Catholics have now shown approval of embryonic stem cell research at between 60-72%.
An analysis of some numbers may provide a helpful perspective on the debate. An estimated 440 million fertilization events occur around the world every year, which works out to 1.2 million zygotes created every day leading to about 350,000 babies born daily. Thus 60-70% of these early embryos are lost, most prior to implantation. This is a daily early embryo death rate of roughly 844,000 per day worldwide. (This compares with about 71,000 legal abortions daily around the world, and 55,000 illegal abortions). On average, about 820 early embryos are implanted in women each day in the US for purposes of assisted reproduction, and 710 of them are lost (with 109 live births per day). The number of new stem cell lines being created every day globally is thought to be fewer than one, with 22 lines currently available for federally funded research under Mr. Bush's 2001 plan, and fewer than 200 available in private repositories after five years of unfunded research.
No public discussion has taken place about how to save the 844,000 early embryos that die each day around the world. No public advocacy by the Republican Party or by religious leaders has been made for an investment of research dollars in saving the embryos lost to "natural causes." If the early embryo has the same moral worth as an adult human, then saving these lives would seem to take on an immense moral urgency. By comparison, one-sixth as many people--155,000-will die today worldwide of all other causes. 46,500 will die from heart disease or stroke. 19,000 will die of cancer today, one-third of the deaths preventable. 16,480 people will die today of starvation. 6,800 children will die from diarrhea today. 100 people today will die violently in Iraq. One or fewer embryos will be diverted today from storage or death to the creation of a new stem cell line.
American taxpayers are being compelled to pay every day for the killing in Iraq, most against their will, but Mr. Bush is not concerned about their moral reservations on this issue.
As a moral community, we should decide if bringing an additional 844,000 people into the world each day is a priority, virtually tripling the number of children who would be born every day. If these lives have the same moral value as any adult, as Mr. Snow's remarks suggest, then they should be saved as urgently as we seek to keep our elderly from dying unnecessarily of stroke. But if saving elderly people from "natural causes" when stroke attacks is in fact a far greater priority for our society than saving the 844,000 embryos dying of natural causes (as current research priorities would suggest), then it might be worth investing our moral outrage more properly in providing food to the hungry, clean water to the world's children, and peace to the war-ravaged countries of Iraq, Lebanon and Israel than in villainizing stem cell research scientists seeking cures for chronic debilitating diseases.