Southern Baptist ethics specialists expressed disappointment at President Bush's decision to provide federal funds for research on stem cells already harvested from human embryos that have been destroyed.
In a nationally televised speech Aug. 9 from his Texas ranch, Bush announced he would allow funding for research on the more than sixty lines, or groups, of existing stem cells "where the life-and-death decision has already been made." The president said this would permit stem cell research "without crossing a fundamental moral line" of funding the destruction of human embryos.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he was "deeply disappointed" with Bush's decision to fund even limited stem cell research.
"I fear that this first halting step in the direction of embryonic stem cell research will build pressure to cross the important moral barrier barring the killing of more embryos to obtain their stem cells," Land said. "We must always remember that these existing stem cell lines are fundamentally different than parts of a human being, such as a kidney or a heart. These stem cells are the essential, foundational building blocks of an entire human being whose life was lost before his or her stem cells were harvested."
ERLC biomedical consultant Ben Mitchell also voiced disappointment, saying the president "surrendered the moral high ground."
"We should not use tax dollars to fund research which is complicit with embryo destruction," said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and senior fellow at The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago. "Since human embryos were killed to obtain the stem cell lines, those cells are morally tainted."
If treatments are developed from research on the cells, "many conscientious citizens will refuse [the treatments] because [they] come from destroyed human embryos," Mitchell said.
Stem cells are primitive cells from which cells and tissues in the human body develop. Their discovery in 1998 has provided hope for treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, and diabetes. Scientists largely have promoted embryonic stem cells for their effectiveness. The procurement of stem cells from embryos destroys the tiny human beings, however. Adult stem cells, which can be obtained without destroying human life, also have shown promise in providing such cures.
The president's decision had been awaited since he took office in January. During the election campaign, Bush said he opposed destructive embryo research. Shortly after he entered the White House, he ordered a review of federal guidelines that permit funding of research on stem cells taken privately from embryos. Land and Mitchell asked the president in a March letter to rescind those rules. Bush delayed a decision, and the pressure mounted, especially from those seeking funds for embryonic stem cell research.
When the president finally revealed his position in an eleven-minute speech Aug. 9, some pro-lifers seemed relieved it was not more of a compromise. The National Right to Life Committee, Focus on the Family, and the American Center for Law and Justice applauded Bush. Others, including not only the ERLC, but also the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, were more critical of the decision. The Christian Coalition, meanwhile, said it has "expressed satisfaction" with Bush's announcement.
Land acknowledged Bush's decision could have been worse and praised parts of his address.
The president "is to be commended for a reflective, thoughtful speech to the nation in which he admirably summarized the complex issues at play in this debate and used the 'bully pulpit' of the presidency to champion the humanity of human embryos," Land said. "The president did maintain his campaign promise to not provide federal funding for research that would cause the destruction of human embryos. Despite enormous pressure from the media and many in the scientific community, as well as members of Congress, the president held the critically important line of defending the lives of our tiniest citizens for whom 'the life-and-death decision' has not already been made. It would have been devastating to the nation and to the president had he crossed that line."
In his speech, Bush said great effort should be made to cure diseases but "it is equally important that we pay attention to the moral concerns raised by the new frontier of human embryo stem cell research. Even the most noble ends do not justify any means.
"Embryonic stem cell research offers both great promise and great peril," Bush said. "So I have decided we must proceed with great care."
The president announced he would name a panel to oversee stem cell research and to propose regulations. He also promoted research on stems cells from sources that do not require the destruction of human life. Studies on stem cells from adult bone marrow and umbilical cord blood have shown them to be effective. Bush said the federal government will spend $250 million on such research this year.
Congress could reject the president's decision and approve funding on research resulting in the destruction of human embryos. A strong majority in the Senate has expressed support for such a position, and there also may be a majority in the House of Representatives for funding such experimentation.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D.-Mo., criticized the president, saying, "Continuing federal funding for stem cell research while limiting the extent to which this kind of research can be advanced is short-sighted. I will work in my capacity as the leader of the House Democrats to do what I can to help come to a consensus on legislation that will allow us to continue stem cell research at the current pace."
The President's Council on Bioethics will include scientists, physicians, ethicists, theologians, and lawyers, Bush said. He named Leon Kass, a bioethicist at the University of Chicago, as the council's chairman. Kass, who is considered a conservative, is an outspoken opponent of human cloning. In his speech, Bush reiterated his opposition to all human cloning.
Land praised the idea of a bioethics council and Bush's selection of Kass.
"I hope and pray that this President's Council on Bioethics will be the first step toward a federal bioethics commission that would be modeled on the enormously successful Atomic Energy Commission, which kept America from being exposed to the dangers of Chernobyl-type, fast-breeder reactors," Land said. "Without such a commission composed of scientific and ethics experts nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and accountable to the people's elected representatives to oversee research in areas such as stem cells, cloning and genetic engineering, we will sooner rather than later face Chernobyl-like biological catastrophes in which we will be confronted with heart-rending, Frankenstein-like results of unregulated and unsupervised experimentation on human lives."
Under President Clinton, the National Institutes of Health issued guidelines last August allowing federal funds to be used for the study of stem cells from human embryos but not for the actual act of deriving such cells and thereby destroying the embryos. The extraction of the cells had to be privately funded to fit within the NIH's rules.
Pro-life members of Congress and organizations such as the ERLC criticized the NIH action as a violation of federal law and of the sanctity of human life. Congress had adopted a measure in 1996 prohibiting federal support for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed."