As recently as the late 1700s, the well-known English theologian and cleric Edward Massey delivered a sermon titled "The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation." It was given at a time when religious leaders and scientists were arguing over the use of vaccines to prevent the spread of smallpox. According to Reverend Massey, "Diseases are sent by Providence for the punishment of sin, and the proposed attempt to prevent them is a diabolical operation."
Then, as now, unfortunately, rhetoric was swallowing the debate. Both sides focused more on the traditional positions and arguments about abortion and cloning than on the more difficult and unique scientific and philosophical issues at the very heart of the new research. In Congress, the issue first came to a head in 2001 over the question of whether President Bush would permit federal funds to be used to fund research on stem cells derived from surplus in vitro fertilization embryos. Both sides weighed in heavily, and the lobbying was intense.
I struggled with what to do. As a pro-life senator, I had played a leading role in numerous fights over abortion, and many of the arguments being made by some of my colleagues, such as Senator Brownback and Representative Chris Smith, resonated with me both personally and professionally.
Given my voting record and position on abortion, the obvious political course was to follow the lead of the Right-to-Life community and support a complete ban on this kind of research. It would be far easier-and better for my future elect ability-to support a ban than to endorse this most promising branch of regenerative medicine. What this position would not do, however, was help the millions of people suffering from serious chronic diseases.
Moreover, the passionate defense of life should not stop at birth. We have as profound an obligation to a child outside the womb as we do to one inside. To me, an advocate for life has to consider not only our obligations to a group of cells with the potential for life but also our obligation to our fellow citizens-men, women, and children-who will face untold suffering and lose many years of life unless there is a medical breakthrough.
Several churches argue that life is sacred from the moment of conception, regardless of how that conception occurs. A fertilized egg contains the entire human genetic code and has the potential to grow into a person. Therefore, to them, it is spiritually and ethically a human being.
Other religions, however, base their support of embryonic stem cell research on their obligation to assist not just the unborn but the whole spectrum of life, especially when assistance cannot be provided by any other means. To them, ignoring this opportunity would be immoral and unethical.
There is a third perspective, the so-called "developmental" view of life, that an early embryo, before the formation of the primitive streak that will eventually become the spinal cord and brain, does not enjoy the same legal protections as a person. This is based in part on the assessment by some scientists that for the first fourteen days, a fertilized egg is little more than a jumble of cells.
All three positions have thoughtful and sincere supporters. For many, the right interpretation is based on both religious faith and understanding, made all the more difficult as science has forced religions to review their positions on life and creation.
For me, human life begins in a mother's nurturing womb and is impossible without it. The blastocysts used for embryonic stem cell research, whether they are developed through the somatic cell nuclear transfer process or are unused embryos from an in vitro fertilization clinic, are not the same as a person or a fetus. A frozen embryo in a laboratory refrigerator is more akin to a frozen egg or sperm. While each has the potential to contribute to human life, no frozen egg, sperm or embryonic cell can reach personhood absent a mother's womb. There is little debate over the ethical or moral consequences when these are discarded, just as there are few objections when an in vitro clinic discards unused blastocysts.
Similarly, there are significant legal problems with the assertion that a blastocyst is the same as a person and thus that the destruction of one is the equivalent of murder. Certainly, no member of the United States Supreme Court has ever taken the position that embryos are constitutionally protected persons, and there is little likelihood that any court would order every "spare" embryo in a clinic to be taken through a full-term pregnancy. This position also conflicts with state law. Under Utah law, for example, an abortion can occur only when a fertilized egg has been implanted in a womb.
If an embryo were the legal equivalent of a person, the use of a variety of contraceptive devices, such as those that impede fertilized eggs from attaching onto the uterine wall, could potentially be considered a criminal act. For in vitro clinics, the routine act of discarding "spare" frozen embryos could become an act of murder and would, at a minimum, be inseparable from an abortion.
Regardless of one's position on abortion, there is little support for this legal result. To successfully create life through in vitro fertilization, extraordinary third-party human involvement and scientific procedures are required. Conversely, while it requires an intentional human act, the purpose of abortion is to end life. The two procedures are polar opposites and should not be considered legally, morally or philosophically equivalent.
There was a second issue to consider. What are the consequences of banning this research?
Some, particularly those in the Right-to-Life community, argue that research on adult stem cells actually holds greater promise than the study of embryonic cells. Although adult stem cell research would clearly offer a preferable political solution, most leading scientific authorities dispute this proposition and assert that embryonic stem cell research is by far the more promising course to follow at this time. For now, a ban on the use of embryonic cells could materially impede progress, and the hope that this new field represents would be diminished and, perhaps, lost.
To that end, in 2000, the National Institutes of Health published guidelines controlling the direction of the research and what could be studied. The regulations build upon the work of the National Bioethics Advisory Committee, the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Institutes of Health, and the Human Embryo Research Panel, which was established by President Clinton.
More than 50,000 comments were submitted about the guidelines when they were initially published in draft form, ensuring that when finalized they not only would be comprehensive but would pass the inevitable legal challenge. These guidelines require that only stem cells derived from embryos produced for procreation, but not used for that purpose, could be a possible source. No financial or other benefit could be offered to encourage donation, and there must be a comprehensive informed consent. Most important, no funds could be used for human cloning.
After reviewing all these factors, I decided we should support the use of federal funds to underwrite controlled research into regenerative medicine, regardless of whether the stem cells are derived from unused blastocysts obtained through in vitro clinics or through somatic cell nuclear transfer applied to unfertilized eggs. This research is fundamentally different scientifically, legally and morally from abortion. Supporting it is both pro-life and pro-family.
If the potential of this field is actually realized, one day a wide range of diseases and degenerative and debilitating conditions can be cured. Lives will be saved and unfathomable pain, suffering and torture will be avoided. The purpose of this research is to save life, not terminate it.