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Embryonic stem cells are back in the news , as the Senate debates the use of federal funding for destructive research. There’s something about the drive to force this issue that corresponds far too closely to political seasons: We seem compelled to have this debate again whenever elections are looming.

Not that all the supporters of such research¯research in which the embryo is destroyed for its component parts¯are motivated solely by politics. But the 2004 presidential campaign was a model of what we can expect: The word "abortion" was never spoken from the platform at the Democratic convention that summer, but "stem cells" were named over and over. Hard and vocal support for abortion is a loser in American politics today; it costs a politician more votes than it gains. But the Democrats are convinced that embryonic stem cells are a winner and that the Republicans are vulnerable. "Democrats say their advantage on stem cells extends to Pennsylvania, Ohio and throughout the Midwest, where the party hopes to attract independent and moderate Republican voters," the Wall Street Journal reported . "’It’s not just in Missouri,’ said Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat leading his party’s Senate re-election effort. ‘It’s been a very significant issue with a group of swing voters that in the past was not open to us.’"

It isn’t a surprise, and it isn’t wrong, when politicians behave in political ways. But a typical news report¯like this one , for example, from CNN¯has the Democrats acting only for disinterested reasons, the pro-research Republicans persuaded against their political instincts by the overwhelming evidence, and the president’s threatened veto motivated solely by his attempt to shore up the party’s conservative base.

The Washington Post editorial on the subject this morning is better, granting that some principle could be involved in the debate: "We respect those who believe that destroying an embryo is taking a human life and that the government should not pay for it." For that matter, the Post even suggested that Bush was not a monster when he halted federal funding for the creation of new stem-cell lines from the destruction of embryos: "When Mr. Bush announced that he would permit the use of existing stem cell lines almost five years ago, that compromise made sense."

But the editorial skips too quickly from the fact that Bush banned federal funding to the notion that the research itself has been successfully banned: "The existing limit on research¯allowing researchers to use only existing lines of stem cells¯has proved unduly restrictive." And the whole debate has been disingenuous from the beginning. The bottleneck for research is the availability of embryos. Does anyone believe that the demands by this research will stop with the unused in-vitro embryos that the Senate bill would allow scientists to use with federal funding?

Back in 2001, Christopher Reeve, while he was one of the chief spokesmen for biotechnology during the embryonic stem-cell debate, claimed that the whole question of stem cells didn’t involve cloning since the necessary components could be obtained by harvesting the unused embryos left over from attempts at in-vitro fertilization. Within a year, Reeve was justifying cloning of embryos created for that purpose, on the grounds that "we are not talking about destroying life, which begins at the moment of fertilization of a sperm and an egg. The public must understand that stem cells can be taken out of embryos that are not really embryos as they are not fertilized."

"As often happens in politics," the Weekly Standard points out , "when momentum builds for a cause, that cause may already be on the way to irrelevancy. The facts on the ground change. H.R. 810 would fund research on so-called ‘spare’ human embryos. Such embryos, however, offer an inefficient and ineffectual road to medical progress: inefficient, because procuring consent to use leftover embryos is a cumbersome process, and the vast majority of couples who produced them do not want them used for research; ineffectual, because using "spare" embryos does not allow scientists to control the genetic makeup of the stem cells, which is (as they have told us) essential for building useful models of disease and developing rejection-proof therapies."

"The stark fact," the Post insists, "is that the embryos that would be made available for use under this legislation would be destroyed in any event. They were created for purposes of in-vitro fertilization with the full expectation that not all would be used; there are currently some 400,000 such excess embryos . . . .Thus, no embryo would be destroyed that would not have been destroyed anyway. And research can proceed that holds out hope for saving actual, not potential, human life."

That opposition between "actual" and "potential" doesn’t quite work: The best one can say about the medical cures promised by researchers like the Korean fraud Hwang Woo Suk is that it "holds out hope," which is another way of saying that it isn’t actual at all, but only potential. And the question here is solely whether we can hold the minimal moral line of a refusal to use federal funds for destroying these embryos.

In addition to which :

With the recent election of Frank Page as President of the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC signaled a change in course. Not since the Controversy of the 1970s have Baptists called for such reform, says Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, who reports on the event in the fresh August/September issue of First Things . Start receiving the journal by simply clicking here .

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