The stem cell debate currently roiling the White House, Congress, and millions of Americans has been presented to us as a debate about scientific ethics--is it ethical for researchers to use "discarded" embryos from fertility clinics to create embryonic stem cells, a sort of magical tissue source that might lead to therapy for incurable diseases?

The Catholic Church says no, and so do many evangelical Christians, according to an ABC News/Beliefnet poll. The same poll shows that the majority of Americans support such research, and recently, prominent pro-life advocates, such as Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, have urged President George W. Bush, who is said to be wavering, to allow federal funds to pay for research using discarded embryos. Some oppose stem cell research owing to the spiritual belief that embryonic material is sacred. Others counter that if stem cell breakthroughs save those with incurable diseases, then stem cell research is pro-life. It's a conundrum no matter how you slice it.

More on the
Stem Cell Debate

  • The Surprising Politics of Stem Cells Analysis of the ABC/Beliefnet poll
  • Results of the Poll
  • Why Pro-Lifers Must Oppose Stem Cell Research By Gary Bauer
  • What Religious Leaders Say
  • What do you think? Discuss
  • A Stem Cell Primer
  • Stem Cell Research Links
  • But are we focusing on the right conundrum? So far, the stem cell debate has centered entirely on whether federally funded researchers should be allowed to derive stem cells from discarded embryos. But the key ethical question doesn't originate with the stem cell research--it originates with fertility clinics, where the discarded embryos are made.

    No matter what we decide about stem cells, fertility clinics will continue to manufacture and discard the embryos the researchers want permission to use. Public funds do not create the embryos, nor do stem cell researchers need anything close to the very large number of excess embryos fertility clinics generate and inevitably destroy (or freeze indefinitely, which is the same in the sense that it precludes life). If there's something immoral about embryos being destroyed or discarded, the questionable practices start at the fertility clinics.

    What's more, while federally funded scientists are subject to strict rules of protocol and disclosure, most fertility clinics are private institutions essentially subject to no laws other than the free market's and are allowed to do mostly what they please to human eggs, sperm, and unions of the two. But because fertility clinics exist to bring human life into the world, their work is largely supported by the pro-life movement. The clinics are the good guys. This support by Protestant evangelicals and others who make up the nation's pro-life movement has focused the policy debate on stem cells and not the clinics that make them. But ground zero for the debate is actually in the clinics themselves.

    Consider the Center for Fertility and In Vitro Fertilization at Loma Linda University in Southern California. It's one of the top-notch lab-assisted reproductive institutions in the United States, offering the latest in medical technology. It's run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has a long-standing tradition of sponsoring world-class medical research. And the Seventh-day Adventist Church opposes most forms of abortion.

    Physicians at Loma Linda will only provide artificial-reproduction assistance to married couples, create as few excess embryos as possible, and freeze for storage only embryos couples plan to use. Nevertheless, the Loma Linda clinic is artificially making embryos that never become babies.