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Lifelike By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, June 11, 1999

WEBSTER’S WILL SOON NEED two separate dictionaries, the first defining words as they are commonly understood, the second providing their meanings according to the Clinton Administration. The White House’s latest linguistic distortion concerns the term "embryos," specifically as they relate to a four-year-old congressional ban on federal funding for research involving their creation or destruction. New studies indicate that pluripotent stem cells—the building blocks for almost all human tissue, including body parts, nerves, and organs—could be instrumental in curing most major diseases. Because stem cells are abundant in human embryos, the Administration has decided to sidestep the congressional ban by way of its favorite political weapon: legalistic hairsplitting.

Stem cells, the Department of Health and Human Services announced in January, are not embryos, just parts thereof, and thus fall outside the ban. That’s accurate, in the sense that beating hearts are not persons, but putting a bullet through one does not absolve a shooter of killing the person attached to it. National Institute of Health Director Harold Varmus concedes that it is impossible to extract stem cells without first destroying the embryo. But, the HHS reasons, as long as scientists are not personally involved in the destruction of any embryos—that is to say, as long as they contract that grim task to a third party—they are still eligible for federal funding.

The reasoning fails both the letter and the spirit of the law. Rep. Jay Dickey (R., Ark.), who co-authored the legislation, explains that Congress prohibited funding for embryonic research projects in which "lethal destruction or harmful manipulation is a necessary prerequisite." The Administration’s unique interpretation strips the law of its very purpose—sparing human life from medical experimentation.

HHS Secretary Donna Shalala and her subordinates offer the meaningless claim that stem cells are not embryos only because the context of the debate precludes them from making their real case—that embryos are not human beings. That argument occasionally slips out, however, as when HHS General Counsel Harriet Rabb argued that "a human embryo, as that term is virtually universally understood, has the potential to develop in the normal course of events into a living human being." By "potential" she means that the embryo is not yet worthy of human status; by "virtually unanimous" she suggests that, in her daily routine as a Clinton appointee, she seldom meets any pro-lifers.

That bias is even more obvious in last month’s findings of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, a panel the President assembled to make the case for fetal and embryonic experimentation. "We have moral obligations to the future health and welfare of people," commission chairman and Princeton University President Harold Shapiro told the Washington Post. "We need to balance these with, at the very least, the symbolic moral obligation we have to the embryo." The unborn, being only "symbolically" human, are therefore dispensable, at least if medical discoveries are at stake. "When," Shapiro asks rhetorically, "does biological material achieve the moral status of a person?" A better question is: Which persons does science, in the name of progress, downgrade to the status of "biological material"?

Proponents of embryonic experimentation eagerly cite possible medical benefits. "It is not too unrealistic to say that this research has the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine and improve the quality and length of life," boasts NIH Director Varmus. Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, a medical-industry lobbying group, promises that "the potential therapeutic impact of human embryonic stem cells in replacing cells and tissue damaged by disease or aging is enormous." But in their zeal, they miss the most obvious conclusion: embryos are useful for human medicine, far more so than rats, guinea pigs, or anything concocted in a laboratory—precisely because of their humanity.

"This research is allied with a noble cause," reads an NABC draft report, "and any taint that might attach from the source of the stem cells diminishes in proportion to the potential good which the research may yield." That’s a fancy way of saying the ends justify the means. "If we didn’t exploit" embryonic experimentation, Daniel Perry insists, "we would be doing ourselves a grave injustice." But exploiting unborn children at the expense of their lives, to benefit ourselves, is a greater injustice still. Stem cells are also available in adult bone marrow, which is admittedly harder to come by and arguably not quite as useful, but yields no victims.

Glenn McGhee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics sees no reason to hold back. "The tissue used in . . . stem-cell research," usually unused embryos left over in fertility clinics, "is tissue that is to be discarded anyway," he told Gannett News Service. True, and one day we’ll all be dead—but that doesn’t make our live bodies fit for medical experimentation.

Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.

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