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Finally, a little compassionate conservatism

Randy West, Editor

In his first major address to the nation, President George W. Bush last week ended months of anguished debate and surprised some people by allowing some federal tax dollars to be spent on human embryonic stem cell research that’s already underway.
It had been feared that Bush would follow the advice of his many advisors on the conservative right wing and block federal funding for this esoteric but important research, which could possibly lead to real progress in the fight against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord paralysis and debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Bush could have made it easier to open the gates for massive amounts of federal funding for this important laboratory research, which has the potential to help literally millions of people around the world, but he didn’t. He chose instead to take a limiting, fairly middle ground course. His administration will endorse medical research for 60 already-exisiting stem cell “lines” or colonies.
The fact that Bush, who isn’t known for being especially cerebral, went to such great lengths to consult all kinds of experts — political, ethical, medical and religious, even Pope John Paul II — is to his credit. During his brief TV talk, he did an amazingly good job of outlining both sides of the debate. (We wish he would be that circumspect on more issues.)
He had promised during his campaign to resist federal funding for research that destroyed human embryos, but apparently he was open-minded enough to be convinced by others, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), that there is a great possibility for medical breakthroughs. To try to block or discourage this kind of research, though private research institutions can do what they want, would have been foolish. Imagine trying to stop the work on a Salk vaccine, penicillin or an artificial heart.
Right-to-life people are upset with Bush’s decision because they see the research as one more way of killing innocent human life. We see it as a way of using the frozen leftover building blocks of human life that have been discarded by fertility clinics (and volunteer couples who wanted children) in order to create human cells to cure illness and disease. We don’t think human embryos should be intentionally produced by humans for research purposes only, nor should embryos be created by cloning human cells.
Human embryo stem cells are extraordinary; miraculous is probably a more accurate word. Extracted from an early human embryo “cell mass” at about six days old (a process that kills the embryo), stem cells are the only human cells that have the ability to become different kinds of organ tissue, although they can’t become a complete individual. That’s truly amazing, when you think about it. The Associated Press reported last week, “When properly nurtured, the cells are able to replicate, or divide virtually forever, creating what is called a stem cell line. There are several embryonic stem cell lines now in existence, experts say, but some of them could not be used in federal research … ”
Stem cell research is a new field, a new frontier that few of us understand now, and, although there always exists the possibility that some Dr. Frankenstein will misuse applications, it would be foolish to stop this kind of extremely valuable, groundbreaking scientific work, especially when it’s being done in private clinics and other countries.
Federal support for stem cell research was an issue that Bush grappled with for a long time. Obviously, he looked deep into his heart. It’s good to see him find a compromise of sorts, which is, after all, the art of governing, although people with spinal cord injuries and cancer and Parkinson’s disease will be greatly disappointed. He could have done so much more.
But the debate on this and other issues, like human cloning, has just begun. It’s way too early for definitive decisions, and who knows what Congress will do.

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