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Jewish World Review July 18, 2001/ 27 Tamuz 5761

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Bush should decelerate stem-cell debate --
GEORGE W. BUSH must curse his timing. Little into his first year as president, he's asked a Solomonic question that no man should have to answer publicly. For the question isn't really whether the federal government should fund embryonic stem-cell research, as argued, but whether God exists at all.

If you're a Christian who believes that life begins at conception, as Bush reportedly does, then an embryo is a life with a divinely endowed soul. Not a cluster of cells, though technically, that's what an embryo is. In the case of stem-cell research, the embryo is a cluster of 100 cells. What's that? A life? A potential life? A glob?

Bush had wanted to live in the White House so he could revamp public education, build a missile shield and return money to taxpayers. Instead, he has to decide when a human being gets a soul.

Different eras have advanced different theories, from quickening to birth to sometime thereafter. Abortion supporters clearly believe that the soul - if it exists - develops sometime after birth and not one second before. In the womb, you're a messy, often inconvenient, blob; outside the womb, if you're lucky enough to emerge headfirst, you're a human.

Bush reportedly has all but stopped people on the street for help with his dilemma. One news story reported that the president has brought up stem-cell research during meetings on other topics. He's like the jilted lover who asks anyone she meets - the nail tech, her hairdresser, the butcher - "Should I take him back?"

Of course, if Bush were Clinton, he'd take a poll and decide accordingly. Instead, Bush has interviewed scientists, members of the clergy, and bioethicists. He's slated to confer July 23 with Pope John Paul II and, one suspects, has e-mailed Peter for an appointment.

Bush is conflicted for all the right reasons. Embryonic stem-cell research is said to hold promise for curing a variety of diseases, from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to diabetes and cancer. No one wants to stand in the way of such important cures.

On the other hand, depending on who's talking, adult stem cells may be as useful to research as embryonic stem cells. Why destroy embryos, endowed with human potential if not a human soul, when the research is so morally divisive and possibly unnecessary?

The slippery slope, meanwhile, looms. One research lab in Virginia already has created embryos for research purposes only, whereas those proposed for use in experimentation under Bush's watch already have been created in fertility clinics and are likely to be destroyed anyway.

To the pro-life crowd, the question causes no ambivalence. Life begins at conception, case closed. But Bush already has diluted his commitment to that position by his support of abortion in cases of rape or incest. Eliminating an embryo at, say, eight weeks, no matter how it was conceived, is arguably more morally egregious than destroying one at the mere 100-cell stage.

Life is either sacred from the start or it isn't. Thus, Bush is already morally inconsistent. To be politically consistent, given that he disapproves of federal funding for abortion, he can't approve federal funding for embryonic research. To do so would lend ammunition to the pro-choice crowd: If it's OK to fund what amounts to abortion, i.e. destruction of a fertilized egg at conception, then it's just a matter of subjective degree (read: personal choice) to apply the same standard to more advanced fetuses.

But what if we're just plain wrong about everything? What if life does begin at conception, an argument any 100-cell embryo would make given a chance 20 years hence. What if human beings really do have a soul endowed by a Holy Spirit? Lots of smart people have thought so.

These are the questions plaguing our president and, frankly, it's nice to know he's agonizing. Nevertheless, embryonic stem-cell research is going to happen with or without Bush's approval or federal funding. His administration thus might better focus its moral energy on regulating those activities.

As to the immediate question of funding, Bush should heed the advice of the driving instructor: When you're not sure what to do, take your foot off the accelerator.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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