Drawing the Line on Human Dignity

on June 22, 2007

James Tonkowich
June 22, 2007

Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of attending several bill signings.  I was thrilled to be present when President Bush signed the partial-birth abortion ban and again when he signed the Sudan Peace Act.

On June 20, I attended something completely different.  I was among several hundred guests in the East Room of the White House for what might be called a bill “vetoing.”

The bill, “Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007,” would have overturned the Bush administration’s policy regarding embryonic stem cell research, a policy that is both ethical and prudent.


President Bush embraces stem cell patient Kaitlyne McNamara. McNamara was born with spina bifida, a disease that damaged her bladder, her doctors isolated healthy stem cells in a piece of her own bladder and used them to grow her a new bladder. White House photo by Eric Draper.

Bush is the first president to provide federal funding for any embryonic stem cell research, but the funding is limited to research on lines of stem cells from embryos that were destroyed prior to August 9, 2001.  So far the administration has spent $130 million on embryonic stem cell research.  An additional $3 billion has funded non-embryonic stem cell research, including adult stem cells and stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

This is to say that government-funded research is proceeding with wonderful success stories and no human embryos have been killed in the process.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act would, as Bush put it, “compel American taxpayers—for the first time in our history—to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos.”

An embryo is one of us, a person.  And we owe our fellow humans—particularly the weakest among us—respect, protection, and care.  IRD board member emeritus George Weigel has written, “A human embryo is not merely ‘capable of life.’ It is human life. That tiny organism is not … ‘a microscopic clump of cells.’ It is precisely what a human being looks like at that point in its life. It’s precisely what [you] looked like at that point in your life.”

And Christians understand that it is precisely what Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, looked like at that point in His life.  The doctrine of the Incarnation speaks loudly and clearly about how we treat human beings at every stage of life, including the embryonic stage.  By that measure, destructive embryonic research is both unacceptable and immoral.

The president went on to say:

Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical – and it is not the only option before us. We’re already seeing remarkable advances in the science and therapeutic uses of stem cells drawn from adults and children, and the blood from umbilical cords – with no harm to the donor. Researchers value embryonic stem cells because they are pluripotent – which means that they have the potential to develop into nearly all the cell types and tissues in the body. Researchers are now developing promising new techniques that offer the potential to produce pluripotent stem cells – without having to destroy human life.

And the proof was standing in the East Room with him.  He introduced Carol Franz:  “She has whipped cancer twice by using adult stem cells. In other words, adult stem cells have saved her life.”

He also introduced Kaitlyne McNamara. “Kaitlyne,” Bush explained, “was born with spina bifida, a disease that damaged her bladder. None of the treatments her doctor tried had worked; she was in danger of kidney failure. Then her doctors took a piece of her bladder, isolated the healthy stem cells, and used them to grow a new bladder in a laboratory – which they then transplanted into her. And here she stands, healthy.”

Thinking about Carol and Kaitlyne sends shivers up my spine.  Scientists are unlocking what are literally the secrets of life.  The possibilities for curing disease, alleviating suffering, and doing good are enormous.  At the same time, given the push in Congress for destructive embryo research, the prospects of a de-humanized future filled with suffering and evil due to the loss of human dignity and the sanctity of life are ominously near. There is no point in finding cures for human ills if what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man” is to be the price for finding those cures.

In addition to vetoing the bill, the president announced an executive order that encourages and funds ethical stem cells research.

President Bush ended his speech by saying:

Technical innovation in this difficult area is opening up new possibilities for progress without conflict or ethical controversy. So I invite policymakers and scientists to come together to speed our nation toward the destination we all seek—where medical problems can be solved without compromising either the high aims of science or the sanctity of human life.

As I’ve written elsewhere, destructive embryonic stem cell research is a Faustian bargain.  We may discover cures for some diseases, but we will have done so by cannibalizing the next generation and selling our souls in the process.

President Bush’s veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act draws a line for ethical medical research that is in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings about the sanctity and value of human life as well as human industry and science.

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