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Stemming the Tide - Aug. 16, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

President Bush's determination on stem cell research appears to have spawned a division of its own within conservative quarters. Some of the greatest minds and deepest thinkers of current times continue to wrestle over the question of whether or not the decision was morally pure.

Statements from two distinguished leaders within the pro-life community typify some of the reactions. Laura Echevarria of the National Right to Life Committee said the group was delighted that President Bush's decision "prevents the federal government from being a party to any further killing of human embryos for medical experimentation." Wendy Wright of Concerned Women of America, on the other hand, suggests some dissatisfaction when she describes the president's decision as one step closer to the "slippery slope."

Yet if the words contained within statements such as these are looked at a bit more closely, one could conclude that conservatives from seemingly opposing factions are actually saying the same thing. A common admonition rising from conservative America might be capsulized in this way: Stem the tide. No further slippage.

At first glance, any governmental action that would allow tax dollars to be used for research using derivatives of destroyed human embryos would appear to be morally deficient. But two aspects deserve further examination - context and consequence.

Responsible exercise of leadership in any capacity demands that a decision be made in context, with due regard for any future consequences. Prior to President Bush's final determination, most experts thought that he was simply going to grant the funding for embryonic research or deny it. In the event that either of these outcomes had occurred, the said judgment would have brought total gratification to one side and complete disappointment to the other.

Few, if any, experts predicted what ultimately happened. The president authorized federal funding for research, but constrained the research to the 60 embryonic stem cell lines that were derived from embryos destroyed in the past. President Bush drew a bright line in the lab and limited the use of funds to research that would not involve the destruction of human life in its embryonic stage, frozen or otherwise.

Congress was ready and able to act had the president denied all funding. An emotional campaign had been skillfully waged, creating an environment where, notwithstanding the president's decision, the desired tax dollars were going to be provided. Embryo after embryo clung with its nascent fingernails to the hopes that it would not face the prospect of dissection and certain destruction.

But President Bush's decision changed the life and death equation. A combination of public, scientific, and celebrity response reduced congressional support for embryonic stem cell research funding so much so that many people believe the threat has been removed altogether.

In addition to the embryo victory, morality scored a victory of its own. When morality is dragged onto the playing field of relativism, moral chaos results. When morality is discerned quantitatively, sound moral judgment is able to emerge. Conservatives of all persuasions might reflect upon the fact that we have been witness to a policy grounded in authentic, thoughtful morality.

People of faith and religious tradition would generally agree that murder is morally wrong. Nevertheless, they would likely acknowledge that there are times when the taking of life would be acceptable, perhaps even necessary. The obvious example is one where a criminal is about to inflict serious bodily harm on an infant. If the only way to prevent injury to the infant is to harm the criminal, and the criminal's injury may result in death, most people of conscience would agree that protecting the infant is a morally correct act. This principle applies whether the criminal is 8 or 80. Thus the taking of life can be a moral imperative.

President Bush avoided a decision where the foreseeable immediate future consequence would have involved congressional funding for extensive destruction of human life. When considered from this standpoint, both the speech and the determination take on a new moral tone. Thankfully, the president was able to lift us out of the bioethical quicksand, halt the momentum in Congress and save embryonic lives.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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