Sen. Frist took a needed step forward for medical research when he announced Friday his support for expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, using frozen embryos left over at fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded.
His speech lacked the same clarity about his moral reasoning, however. Identifying himself as "pro-life," Frist said that he believed that "life begins at conception" and human embryos deserved "to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect." He then expressed his belief that "embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported."
Unfortunately, he made no moral argument for why support for stem cell medical research was a pro-life issue. Fortunately, he carved space in the center of the public square for a reasoned discussion over the balancing act between common-sense ethics and science.
Frist's position broke from President Bush, who has promised to veto legislation expanding federal funding for stem cell research. He also broke from the religious right, which sees the use of human embryos in research as murder.
"I believe the President's policy should be modified. We should expand federal funding … and current guidelines governing stem cell research, carefully and thoroughly staying within ethical bounds," said Frist, the Senate Majority Leader.
"I'm a physician. My profession is healing. I've devoted my life to attending to the needs of the sick and suffering and to promoting health and well being," said Frist, a transplant surgeon.
"In all forms of stem cell research, I see … great promise to heal. Whether it's diabetes, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, or spinal cord injuries, stem cells offer hope for treatment that other lines of research cannot offer," said the Tennessee Republican on the Senate floor.
"To derive embryonic stem cells, an embryo—which many, including myself, consider nascent human life—must be destroyed," he said. "But I also strongly believe—as do countless other scientists, clinicians, and doctors—that embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide."
The House of Representative passed a bill in May supporting increased federal funding for stem cell research using discarded embryos.
At that time, Bush held a photo-opportunity at the White House with 21 families who have adopted or given up for adoption frozen embryos.
"Rather than discard these embryos created during in vitro fertilization, or turn them over for research that destroys them, these families have chosen a life-affirming alternative. Twenty-one children here today found a chance for life with loving parents," said Bush.
What he did not say was that the 81 children born to date through the embryonic adopted services offered by Nightlight Christian Adoptions were a far cry from the 400,000 frozen embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics.
Unlike Bush, Frist understands that embryonic adoption is not a viable alternative, and he seeks a morally constructive solution. He clearly values the use of discarded embryos to heal the sick, a moral value in itself.
Also, unlike the president, Frist shows the courage to break free from the grip of the religious right, which offers a shrill ideology with false solutions.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.