A Delicate Balance

The issue of stem cells was the first test of the infant Bush administration, pitting the promise of medical discovery against the protection of developing life and prompting the president's first speech to the nation. His solution--funding research on existing stem-cell lines, but not the destruction of embryos to create new ones--was seen as a smart political compromise. In fact, the president was drawing a bright ethical line. He argued that no human life should be risked or destroyed for the medical benefit of another. This was an intentional rejection of the chilly creed of utilitarianism--the greatest good for the greatest number--because the greatest number would gain the unrestricted right to extend their lives by ending or exploiting the lives of the weak.

Now the suggestion that science may be able to extract usable stem cells from early embryos without destroying them offers a technological answer to this ethical puzzle, and exposes some tensions within the pro-life movement.

In the reported experiment, every embryo was killed to extract their stem cells, a fact not likely to encourage enthusiasm in the pro-life community. But the growth of viable stem-cell lines from very early cells raises the prospect that these cells could be collected in more ethical ways, through existing fertility technologies that test for disease without ending a life. This method, as it stands, is still questionable, but it is testable.

And there is another hurdle, written into law. The Dickey amendment prohibits federal funding for research in which human embryos are "knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero." Children who underwent an embryo biopsy during in vitro fertilization (there are, perhaps, a couple of thousand) don't report genetic problems. But the data on their health is slight, and the procedure is relatively new. Yet assuming this technology works, and assuming it doesn't expose the embryo to greater risk, this approach would pass the standard set by the president, and fulfill the letter of the law.

It is not, however, likely to meet the standard of Roman Catholic teaching, and this exposes a division within the pro-life community. Catholic teaching is not only concerned about harm to the embryo, it also asserts an unbreakable connection between reproduction, sexuality and family life, which makes it critical of most fertility technologies, including IVF. This is not the fight the president has chosen. But it is fair to say that most pro-life people would view this new technology as an improvement over the destruction of embryos.

Two conclusions: First, the president's policy has been useful, giving scientists the time and incentive to pursue a number of alternatives to the wholesale destruction of embryos. Second, all this research and debate concerning a small clump of cells is an encouraging sign that American conscience remains on duty. They reveal an intuition, even among people who consider themselves pro-choice, that this clump is different from a hangnail or a tumor. It is genetically distinct, biologically alive and undeniably human. And when this life ends, like a snowflake in a warm hand, we know that something irreplaceable has been lost.