Saturday, September 15, 2007

The President's Stem Cell Fig Leaf

On Wednesday of last week, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funding for research using embryonic stem cells left over from fertility treatments. A day later, on Thursday, the Sciences Magazine online published a study indicating that the President’s action does not reflect the wishes of infertility patients. Considerably more than half prefer to donate their surplus embryos to stem-cell medical research rather than have them destroyed or passed on to other infertile couples, according to a survey conducted by Anne Drapkin Lyerly of Duke University Medical Center and Ruth Faden of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Embryonic stem cells, because they can develop into any type of cell in the human body, offer a uniquely valuable path to developing potentially life-saving cures for millions of people. So how did President Bush first decide to stymie this research?

He turned for advice to a biologist and a professional ethicist, who, in a 1991 meeting provided him with the fig leaf he needed for his “thumbs down.”

The ethicist was Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, an influential bioethics think tank. Reading about the President’s recent veto, I was reminded of the time I heard Dr. Callahan speak at a conference four years ago. He was on a panel called “When Morality and Science Collide – The Case of Stem Cell Research.” Dr. Callahan spoke against Federal funding of stem research.

His position was that the embryos were a form of life and so should be treated with respect. He declined to be specific about what that might mean, though he was sure it didn’t involve making use of them in potentially life-saving research.

Having since read more of Dr. Callahan's views on the issue, I have to wonder if the man has even one foot on the ground. He supports the funding ban partly because many of the diseases stem cell research would target afflict mainly the old, who already have lived long enough, in his opinion. This, despite the fact that the panel’s moderator that day was a young man who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“There is no necessary correlation, he has written, “between a good life and good health: some healthy people are unhappy and some happy people are unhealthy. A long life is desirable, but a short life is not incompatible with a good life.”

So should we not have bothered with penicillin?

Callahan has made one argument I agree with: he believes that the public should be heard on the issue of stem cell research and its opinions taken into account -- especially since taxpayers would be footing the bill.

Now that public opinion shifted so decisively in favor of this research, I wonder whether Dr. Callahan might make one of those tough moral choices he's always urging on others, and change his mind. And whether he'll advise the President to do the same.

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