LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–President Bush’s decision to allow federal funding for limited embryonic stem cell research was delivered in a “statesman”-like fashion and contained much that the pro-life community can applaud, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” Aug. 9.
On one hand, Mohler said, Bush recognized the sanctify of life during his announcement and refused to allow the destruction of human embryos by federal funding. However, Mohler added, the decision did open the door for what could be a much-expanded role of embryonic stem cell research in the private sector and eventually within the federal government.
Mohler’s appearance on the show came just minutes after Bush made his announcement in an address to the nation. The president decided not to allow federal funding to be used in destroying what some call “excess” frozen embryos at fertility clinics — as some of his closest aides had proposed — but he instead chose to allow federal funding for some 60 stem cell lines that already exist in various research facilities.
Among those on the program with Mohler were voices from both sides of the controversy, including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, talk show host Montel Williams and Sens. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, and Sam Brownback, R.-Kan. Hatch and Williams had supported using federal funds for research into stem cells derived from frozen embryos at fertility clinics; Dobson and Brownback had opposed it.
Mohler said that Bush was very clear in his position that life begins at conception.
“I appreciate so much the fact that [the president] declared human embryos to be human life and deserving of all protection,” Mohler said. “I think the president did a very good job of laying out the issue. He gave us an excellent lesson tonight and was a wonderful teacher.
“The president was a statesman tonight. He set a policy and established a model of how to discuss this issue.”
But Mohler said that there are concerns.
“I am relieved, first of all, that the American taxpayer will not be put in the direct position of funding the destruction of human embryos for medical research purposes,” he said. “That would be unconscionable. But I am concerned that the use of these 60 lines will lead to the use of others. What will happen is that in the private sector there will be companies that for a profit motive will develop new stem lines, and that means the destruction of additional embryos. Then there will be the inevitable push to continue to expand the use of federal funding to those lines and the existing lines.”
One of Bush’s counselors, Karen Hughes, disagreed with Mohler, saying that Bush’s decision would not lead to more federal funding.
“We think this will actually discourage it, because scientists will have 60 lines on which to begin to experiment, to begin to explore,” said Hughes, who did not appear in the same segment as Mohler. “Sixty lines is a large number, and we feel that it’s very adequate.”
But several of King’s guests disagreed with Hughes. Hatch said he was concerned whether the 60 existing stem cell lines “are enough.” Williams, who is battling multiple sclerosis, put it another way: “What if 10, 15 lines of those lines are not viable?” he asked. “Does that mean now that the president will go back and say, ‘Well, since we only have 45 now, we need to get another 15 and make it 60’?”
Another guest, Deepak Chopra, author of “How to Know God,” also hoped that Bush’s decision would be the beginning of expanded funding.
“I think it’s a very good start,” Chopra said. “I think what the president has done is open the door. I’m very encouraged, because if you’re really pro-life, then we have a moral commitment to healing and to the alleviation of human suffering, and this is a step forward in that direction.”
However, Mohler and another guest, Michael Manning, said there are moral and ethical concerns from using stem cell lines from already destroyed embryos. They pointed out that adult stem cell research — which does not involve destroying embryos — has shown much promise. Adult stem cells have been derived from placentas, umbilical cords and bone marrow.
“I fear that this partial compromise will lead to the unethical use of even further embryos and further destruction,” Mohler said. “We applaud stem cell research — especially with adult cells and placenta and umbilical tissues — but it is fundamentally wrong to use human embryos for that purpose, primarily or secondarily.”
At one point King asked Mohler, “What’s wrong with the passing of one life — be it an embryo — to save another?”
“That utilitarian argument could be applied to any number of atrocities,” Mohler responded. “Every one of the diseases mentioned tonight has afflicted my own family, and I hope and pray that [adult] stem cell research will lead to a cure and treatment for all those diseases.”
Manning, a Catholic and author of “The Word in the World,” said that the 60 lines of stem cells in existence should be respected.
“I’ve very, very uncomfortable … with the use of these 60 lines because I think they’re human beings, and I don’t think we should be playing around with human beings,” he said. “I think they need to be buried and given the respect they they’re due.”
Like most of the guests, Dobson said Bush’s decision has something for both sides of the debate.
“[Bush] didn’t call for federal funds to be expended to take human life [and] to kill those little embryos,” Dobson said. “That was our great concern. … He may not have said it directly, but he implied that life begins at conception. That’s a good thing.
“Although we grieve the loss of the babies that were sacrificed for the cells that now exist, they are now gone and these cells are there. I think we can live with that. We’re going to have to analyze it in the days ahead.”
Brownback said he was concerned about what the future may hold.
“I’m concerned about the breaking of the barrier,” he said. “If you say, ‘OK, … we have some stem cells here that have been developed by destroyed embryos,’ then you have already created a process of incentivization. I was glad that he’s limited it to a particular line, but I worry about that moral barrier, saying [that] you can use these as property. They’re people.”
Williams said that he hopes that Bush’s decision will in fact open the door for more federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
“It’s time for us to understand that this may be the key to stopping the pain and suffering of people like myself — people with spinal cord injury, people with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s,” the talk show host said. “If we are the compassionate nation that we claim to be, we know already that there are about 100,000 embryos frozen right now in America, and less than a thousand of them have even been attempted to be adopted. So when they destroy them, why not let me and other people go pick up the trash?”
Mohler took exception to Williams’ comment.
“For Montel Williams to be able to discuss human embryos as trash shows that we have a long way to go to understanding what the sanctity of life really means,” Mohler said.
Williams responded by saying, “I didn’t say they were trash. I said they would be thrown in the trash. They will be whether you like it or not.”
With time on the show running out Mohler rejected Williams’ utilitarian argument, saying, “Well, we should stop it.”