A Moral Decision, A Vital Consequence

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-08-02-2007, Volume 31, Issue 8

By vetoing stem cell research funding, the President is vetoing potentially life-saving treatments.

There he goes again. On June 20, 2007, President Bush vetoed a bill that would provide government funds for embryonic stem cell research. This is the second time (and only his third veto) the president has vetoed such a bill. The first time was less than a year ago, in fall 2006.

Michelle Hoffman

The president's position has been consistent. "Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical," he said at a press conference on the day of the second veto. This has been his reasoning all along, and it reflects a religious belief that human life starts at the moment of conception—with the creation of the embryo—and that destroying an embryo is tantamount to taking a human life.


Much of the debate around stem cell research has focused on the validity of that assertion. But that approach is unproductive. It is clear that the president and others are quite sincere in their belief of the humanity of the embryo, and that no amount of debate will change that. One might also mount an argument about whether a leader of a religiously pluralistic and democratic nation has the right to make decisions on personally held religious beliefs. But those who voted for George W. Bush elected a president who made it clear he'd be guided in public policies by personal religious principles—so it's disingenuous to express surprise and a bit late to express voter's remorse.

Many of the president's followers argue that embryonic stem cell research has to date provided no therapies. Well, is that really surprising when the research has received no government funding for the past seven years? True, there is private funding for this research. But what most people don't know is that the ban on federally funded embryonic stem cell research also bans researchers from using laboratory facilities that receive any federal funds—even if the research itself is privately funded. And that means that a good deal of private money must be spent on building research facilities—facilities that duplicate ones already in existence—in which to perform embryonic stem cell research. Such facilities, and the equipment that goes into them, are extremely expensive and soak up a good deal of that private funding before they can house even a single embryo.

The president himself is persuaded that there exist ethical alternatives to embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, at the same time he vetoed the embryonic stem cell bill, he signed an executive order, which, in his words, "strengthen our nation's commitment to research on pluripotent stem cells." The order, he says, "directs the Department of Health and Human Services and the NIH to ensure that any human pluripotent stem cell lines produced in ways that do not create, destroy, or harm human embryos will be eligible for federal funding." In other words, the president is encouraging (but not providing additional funding for) the use of technologies that derive cells with the same capacity for growth and differentiation as embryonic stem cells. The problem is that without research on embryonic stem cells, how do we judge the biological or therapeutic equivalence of the "ethically derived" pluripotent cells?

Maybe the only way to fight the veto is to assail the logic of the president's argument—that destroying human life in the hope of saving human life is not ethical. But the president is presenting a false dichotomy. Failing to fund embryonic stem cell research is not the moral equivalent of saving embryos—or, to use the president's rhetoric—human lives. But it does fail to alleviate suffering of other human lives. The embryos targeted for research purposes would otherwise be destroyed—thrown out—whether or not the research is federally funded.

So the choice comes down to this: Either break apart the embryos and culture the individual cells into ones that may someday be the basis for medical therapies, or simply destroy the embryos—to no one's benefit. In other words, do we destroy human life to save human life? Or do we destroy human life for no good reason at all? Now which choice seems more ethical?

Michelle Hoffman is editor-in-chief of Pharmaceutical Technology, mhoffman@advanstar.com.