Bill Frist "Misdoagnosed" Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 4, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Bill Frist "Misdoagnosed" Embryonic Stem Cell Research Email this article
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by Tony Snow
August 4, 2005 Note: Tony Snow is host of "The Tony Snow Show" on FOX News Radio and "Weekend Live With Tony Snow" on FOX News Channel. He is also a nationally syndicated columnist and formerly with the Detroit News newspaper.

No politician can resist the temptation to press up against the glass storefront called History and think wistfully: "This is where I belong." So when the Siren of Enchantment crooked her finger last week at Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., he strolled to the Senate floor and urged American taxpayers to underwrite embryonic stem cell research, promising that the shift would "define us as a civilized and ethical society forever in the eyes of history."

But History often betrays those who seek her favor, preferring to reward those who achieve valor by accident rather than design. As a result, Sen. Frist’s bold foray enhanced his fame, while lowering him into political quicksand.

Understand one thing: Frist is a doctor. The healing gene is in his bones. He performs medical care as a profession, a vocation, even a vacation activity. As a medical professional, he asks what tools are in his toolbox and how he can use them to save or improve lives. This bias for action inclines him against chin-pulling and philosophizing – and in the present case, lured him into a position riddled with inconsistencies.

First comes the fact that embryonic stem cell research involves what he calls the destruction of "nascent human life" – i.e., murder. He tries to twist free of this complication by defining the procedure as justifiable homicide. Frist says the embryo (a) was going to die anyway as part of clinic housecleaning and (b) could supply genetic material useful in curing degenerative conditions, catastrophic injuries and wasting illnesses.

This raises other complications: If Science has the right to conduct investigations on doomed or unwanted embryos, why not do the same with aborted infants, the still-warm deceased, the brain-dead or cloned lumps of tissue?

Legal protection

The senator knows his position logically leads in this direction and he proposes to prevent future horrors by passing laws. Unfortunately, bad ideas rarely stop in their tracks and mere statutes seldom forestall unhappy endings. Bad ideas instead serve as portals for the unimaginable. This is why things once considered criminal – such as designer babies and partial-birth abortions – now enjoy legal protection.

Frist next argues, as do many geneticists, that embryonic stem cells are special. They are "pluripotent" – capable of duplicating any cell in the human body – and therefore only they can regenerate organs and tissues wracked with infirmity and disease.

Research doesn’t yet support this view. Adult and cord-blood stem cells – which scientists can obtain without killing anything – have shown extraordinary healing capabilities. Researchers have used adult cells in ameliorating more than 70 diseases or conditions; cord-blood cells, more than 40. But embryonic stem cells have not produced a single therapeutic breakthrough. On the contrary, the cells have shown an unsettling tendency to grow wildly – creating cancers instead of cures.

The point is, there’s no need for federal funding of a procedure that millions of people consider murderous. Embryonic stem cell research is perfectly legal and entrepreneurs are pumping millions of dollars into it already. If someone finds good uses for the technology, a biotech gold rush will ensue, creating wealth that would humble Bill Gates himself.

Meanwhile, the push for embryo research could shortchange people who need help right now. Why take money from effective technologies (adult and cord-blood stem cells) for the sake of something that so far has proven capable only of spawning cancers?

Such are the major flaws in the Frist argument. Yet a vexing philosophical matter remains: His approach blindsides Lady Liberty.

Our political system depends on one simple acknowledgment: "We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This pillar bears more weight than any other facet of our constitutional system.

Protecting individuals

The Founders’ belief in the sanctity of life enabled them to do something no government had done before: protect individuals from politicians and special interests. "Unalienable" rights were not the handiwork of man. They were the Creator’s handiwork and thus not subject to human review or repeal.

The moment you give in to the temptation to demote God and deify science – even in the quest to save millions of lives – you wreck the wall that protects the weak.

Frist embarked on a healing mission, and wound up on the road paved with good intentions – a road laid out when the president approved embryonic experimentation four years ago. But give him this: Now, neither he, the president nor anyone else in Washington has anywhere to hide when it comes to taking a stand on the sanctity of life.