President Bush fairly laid out the most salient features of the stem cell debate in his television presentation Thursday night, providing the nation with a demonstration of ethical discourse at its best. His was not the one-sided, overstated and overwrought mode of argument employed by so many on this issue, and his decision to allow federal funding for restricted research appears reasonable.
Unlike those who would destroy living embryos in the hopes of finding cures for disease, the president expressed moral qualms, recognizing that the end does not justify the means. He did not make the mistake of saying, as some have, that the destruction could amount to a second Holocaust. He did not warn of embryo factories. He did say that an embryo is a potential human being. While this is a fact that gives some research advocates no pause, it should. There is a divide that we cross at grave peril to the basic values sustaining humane conduct.
Although Bush spoke of the promise of stem cell research, he did not go to the extremes of some proponents who make it sound as if medical Utopia awaits nothing more than the ample provision of federal funds. A consequence of such hyperbole is that a sizable segment of the public may now entertain unjustifiable expectations, thinking that if the politicians get it right, such diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's will be immediately done for. It is always possible, of course, that breakthroughs could occur quickly with more research. More likely, it will take many years, perhaps decades, for the research to produce fruitful results.
Bush's compromise is to fund research on 60 sets of stem cells already extracted from embryos. Although some critics argue that this, too, would abridge reverence for human life, it is difficult to see how it is more worrisome than someone donating his useful organs to the living once he is dead. Doubts have been expressed about the sufficiency of these sets - also known as lines - for the amount of research scientists hope to undertake. Whatever is discovered through further inquiries, however, it should be remembered that this research will be on top of private research and federally funded research on adult stem cells.
Could and should the president have avoided the situation in which he found himself - one person announcing a decision of such moral and medical import after weeks of dramatic buildup? Perhaps, and Congress may soon remind him about the limitations of presidential powers. But as our civilization enters an era of unprecedented ability to manipulate the human body, his speech provides an admirable example of how this society can go about resolving bioethical perplexities.
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