Why Lines Must Be Drawn

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In an election year, it is too much to expect serious and complicated moral issues to be treated with seriousness and complexity. Nonetheless, the way Democrats have managed to caricature and debase the debate over embryonic stem-cell research stands in a class by itself.

In his Aug. 7 radio address to the nation, John Kerry three times referred to "the ban" on stem-cell research instituted by President George W. Bush. What ban? Stem-cell research is legal in the U.S. and has been so since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998. There are dozens of groups studying them, including major stem-cell centers recently launched at Stanford and Harvard.

Perhaps Democrats mean a ban on federal funding for stem-cell research. But, in fact, there is no such ban. Through the Clinton years there was a ban. Not a single penny of federal money was allowed for any embryo research. In his first year in office, however, President Bush reviewed the issue and permitted the first federal funding of stem-cell research ever.

Bush did more than just free up money. In August 2001 he addressed the issue in one of the most morally serious speeches ever delivered by a U.S. President. Political speeches are generally constructed — I know; I used to write them — so that facts are stacked from the very beginning to lead you inexorably to the foregone conclusion. In contrast, Bush's nationally televised address presented both sides of the question with such fairness and respect that three-quarters of the way through the speech you found yourself without any idea where the President would come out.

The position he did adopt was one kind of middle ground — funding research using existing stem-cell lines but not funding research to create stem-cell lines because these must inevitably involve the destruction of human embryos.

I would have drawn the line differently. I would have permitted the conduct of all research using cells drawn from the discarded embryos of fertility clinics (unused and ultimately doomed) but not from embryos created purposely and wantonly for nothing but use by science.

Honorable people will draw the line in different places because this is not an issue of reason vs. ignorance, as the Democrats have portrayed it, but of recognizing two important competing human values: the thirst for knowledge and cures on the one hand and, on the other, the respect for even embryonic human life and a well-grounded respect for the proven human capacity to misuse newly acquired powers, in this case, the power to manipulate, reshape, dissect and redesign the developing human embryo.

However, having no doubt discovered through focus groups and polling that stem-cell research might be a useful reverse-wedge issue against Republicans, who have traditionally enjoyed an electoral advantage on "values," the Democrats showcased it with a prime-time convention speech by the well-known medical expert Ron Reagan. Message? On the one side are the forces of the good, on the verge of curing such terrible afflictions as Parkinson's, diabetes and spinal-cord injury. On the other are the forces of reaction and superstition who, slaves to a primitive religiosity, would condemn millions to suffer and die. Or as Reagan subtly put it, the choice is "between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology."

Compassion? There's nothing less compassionate than to construct a political constituency of sufferers (and their loved ones) by falsely and cruelly intimating that their disease is on the very cusp of cure if only the President would stop playing politics with the issue. Why, after all, was Reagan addressing the nation on a subject of which he knows nothing? Because his famous father died of Alzheimer's, and some (including, sadly, Nancy Reagan) have been led to believe that Alzheimer's is curable using stem cells. This is nonsense. Cynical nonsense. Or as Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem-cell researcher at the National Institutes of Health, admitted candidly to the Washington Post, a fiction: "People need a fairy tale." Yet Kerry began his radio address with the disgraceful claim that the stem-cell "ban" is standing in the way of an Alzheimer's cure.

When I was 22 and a first-year medical student, I suffered a spinal-cord injury. I have not walked in 32 years. I would be delighted to do so again. But not at any price. I think it is more important to bequeath to my son a world that retains a moral compass, a world that when unleashing the most powerful human discovery since Alamogordo — something as protean, elemental, powerful and potentially dangerous as the manipulation and re-formation of the human embryo — recognizes that lines must be drawn and fences erected.