As expected, President Bush vetoed today a Congressional attempt to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. I understand and sympathize with the President's instincts on this issue, but I'm not convinced by the logic of his position.
Basically, the President argues that it is wrong to use federal money to support research that many Americans believe to involve the murder of a human being.
Here's the problem: Fertility clinics generate more embryos in their attempts to help couples conceive than what they eventually use. Once a successful implantation occurs the surplus embryos are usually discarded. Let us, for the sake of argument, stipulate that this is tantamount to killing a human being (parenthetically, we might wonder why those who believe that this is indeed a form of murder have not been more vocal in their opposition to the practice).
Furthermore, abortions produce hundreds of thousands of dead embryos every year. Let's stipulate that this also involves the killing of a living human being. Indeed, let's agree for the sake of discussion that early abortion is the equivalent of murder and should be made illegal.
Now, where are we? We have agreed that dead embryos are often produced in horribly immoral fashion. Does it follow from this that it is wrong to use those embryos, whose lives are forfeit in any event, to help relieve the suffering of others? Not necessarily. It would seem that it's no more wrong to use the tissues of murdered embryos (assuming, still, for the sake of argument that the embryos have been murdered) than it would be morally wrong for a hospital to harvest the organs of an adult homicide victim if consent from the next of kin were granted.
In other words, the morality of the means by which the embryos become available is a separate question from the morality of what can, or should, be done with the embryo once it has become available. It would be morally repugnant, certainly, to produce embryos purely for the sake of harvesting their tissues, but embryos which are sacrificed for other reasons, even for some morally dubious reasons, are not necessarily in that category. They are, at worst, in the same moral category as the homicide victim. It seems that just as we would abhor killing someone to harvest his organs but would not be repelled, perhaps, by the idea of harvesting the organs of someone whose life was otherwise unjustly taken, we should abhor producing embryos simply for the purpose of "farming" them, but not be unwilling to use the stem cells of embryos which have been produced and killed for other reasons.
In sum, the morality of using stem cells extracted from surplus embryos obtained from fertility or even abortion clinics is separate from the question of the morality of how the embryos came to be available. Using the cells for research is not necessarily made morally reprehensible because the way the embryos are obtained is, or may be.
At least that's how I've come to see the matter. Perhaps you have a different view, and if so, I invite you to share your thoughts through our Feedback feature.