by Richard M. Doerflinger
September 3, 1999
Washington D.C. is about to witness an especially cynical act of political theater -- at the expense of vulnerable human beings, and concerned taxpayers.
The issue at hand is federally funded human embryo research. For five years, the Clinton Administration has been champing at the bit to spend taxpayers' dollars on destructive experiments using live human embryos. Through riders to the annual appropriations bills funding the Department of Health and Human Services, Congress has consistently blocked efforts by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund these experiments. However, the alleged medical promise of "embryonic stem cells," versatile cells obtained by destroying week-old embryos, has given the Administration the "wedge" it needed to reopen the issue.
Now comes the political sleight-of-hand. The Administration is not sure it could win a vote in Congress to reverse the current funding ban on embryo research. So it has done an end-run around the law instead. It prepared a legal memo creatively reinterpreting the law, so the current ban does not apply to embryonic stem cell research. Congress only intended to ban the direct use of tax dollars to kill embryos, says the memo -- so as long as private funds are used to destroy embryos for their stem cells, taxpayers' funds can be used for experiments on the resulting cell cultures. Thus the NIH can achieve its goal without having to change the law.
Which raises a question. If even the Administration thinks it could not win a vote in Congress to authorize what it is about to do, how can it claim with a straight face that Congress's current ban was intended to allow it? But according to the NIH and its allies, such questions are raised only by partisans of the "religious right" who want to block medical progress.
Questions like these are embarrassing enough, however, that the NIH has decided it needs further "cover" for what it plans to do. It has delayed publication of its guidelines for embryonic stem cell research, until a federal advisory panel called the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) issues its final report on the issue in September. Not that the NIH needs to wait for NBAC's advice -- in fact it is already widely known that NBAC will endorse funding this research as well. But NBAC is expected to call for federal funding of embryo destruction itself. And the NIH wants to be able to point to NBAC's extreme position to claim that its own stance (fund the research, but not the killing itself) provides a "middle ground" in this debate.
This is, to say the least, disingenuous. Because NIH shares NBAC's view on this issue. It has simply made a tactical decision that it can achieve more by evading the law than by openly contesting it.
In fact, NBAC is not more extreme than the rest of the Clinton Administration on this issue. It is simply more honest. Commission members found it obvious that funding research that relies on destruction of human embryos will promote such destruction. Since this is the case, they reasoned, tax dollars may as well be used for every stage of the process. What NIH's approach gains in political cleverness it loses in moral consistency.
Tragically, a respected national science organization is about to join with the hypocrites. On August 25 the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held a day-long meeting in Washington to announce its support for the NIH position.
While some interesting scientific data were presented at that meeting, they fall far short of showing that this research is necessary for medical progress. Instead, the presenters were driven by ideological commitments -- commitments that they unwisely and unconvincingly tried to deny.
Presenters declared that the AAAS has a "neutral" stance on the moral status of the human embryo. Yet the organization's featured presenter on moral issues was Professor Ronald Green, who helped draft the NIH's report promoting destructive experiments on human embryos in 1994. And the AAAS study is co-sponsored by the Institute for Civil Society, an activist group headed by former pro-abortion congresswoman Patricia Shroeder. One presenter forgot the smokescreen of "neutrality" and told a critic in the audience that she doesn't see any moral problem with this research, because she believes human embryos have no rights as persons.
AAAS's political proposal is draped in the language of science. Yet scientific presenters generally admitted that they just don't know whether embryonic stem cells will achieve medical goals that can't be achieved in other, morally acceptable ways. Precisely because medical benefits from the research are so uncertain, some said, private companies may not invest much money in it -- so taxpayers must be forced to fund it instead, despite their moral objections.
"We really don't know where we're going" in this research, said Professor Green at one point. He can say that again. But he and his allies will try to make sure the rest of us are forced to pay for their fishing expedition.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. When the draft NIH guidelines for tax-funded embryo research are issued, details on how to obtain them and submit public comments will be posted on the Conference's Web site: www.usccb.org.)