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Opening Arguments

Steming the tide

People can't seem to figure Bill Frist out. Is he putting politics above princple, abandoing George Bush on the stem-cell dilemma because of his own presidential ambitions? Or is he, in fact, putting princple above politics, taking a position his medical experience tells him is the right one, despite the fact that it will anger the religious right that is important to those seeking the Republican nomination? The best evidence we have is what the man himself says, and I found his speech on the subject convincing. This seems to be a man who has thoroughly weighed the potential benefits and ethical pitfalls and come to his own uneasy decision in a climate in which the committed partisans of both sides insist there can be no compromise.

I found this passage especially interesting:

So when I remove the human heart from someone who is brain dead, and I place it in the chest of someone whose heart is failing to give them new life, I do so within an ethical construct that honors dignity of life and respect for the individual.

We've had such an intense debate in this nation on when life begins that we tend to overlook the question of when life ends. But medical science has pretty much settled that dilemma, necessitated by the fact that machines can keep the body going indefinitely as an empty shell: Human life ends when the brain dies. Wouldn't that be a useful way to look at the start of human life? It begins not at conception and not at birth but when the brain develops. Such a proposition will satisfy neither the people who insist that any abortion (or use of embryos for stem-cell research) is murder nor the people who insist no abortion is ever the government's business (even something as grotesque as the partial-birth abortion). But it is at least a defensible starting point for a discussion of the moral and ethical quagmires science is leading us into.

Critics of Frist's change of heart are right to point out the distortions of stem-cell advocates; Bush has not, in fact, forbidden embryonic stem-cell research -- he's the first president to approve federal funding, however limited, for it. And they're right to point out some of the inconsistencies in Frist's position, though "moral incoherence" is a bit strong. Certainly, we're on a slippery slope in which each next step deserves great scrutiny. But considering how far such research is already going in the private sector, drawing a line between embryos that are going to be destroyed anyway and embryos that might be created specifically for research is a reasonable distinction to make. That's the scariest step to watch for, I think. Once we take it, our desire to live longer, better, healthier lives might trump any ethical debate anybody cares to bring up.

Posted in: Religion, Science