Senate Leader Bill Frist's Pro-Life Confusion

Jason Dulle

The highest ranking Republican in the Senate, and presidential hopeful, Bill Frist, is the most recent example in a long list string of examples of pro-life politicians who clearly do not understand the logic of the pro-life position.

The House passed a bill that would lift the President's ban on providing federal funds for destructive embryo research (Dickie Amendment, 2001). That bill has now gone to the Senate for its nod. On July 29th, 2005 Bill Frist, while claiming to be pro-life, announced on the floor of the Senate that he will support the bill. This comes on the heels of his statement just a month ago that he did not believe federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) should be expanded. His rationale is representative of many, and thus deserving of critique.

Now it's one thing to be against abortion, but it's another to be principally opposed to abortion. Bill Frist, and all those who share his views, demonstrate that their opposition to abortion is not principled, because the same principles of logic and moral reasoning that make abortion morally unacceptable apply equally to ESCR.

Frist started off on the right foot saying, “I am pro-life. I believe human life begins at conception. It is at this moment that the organism is complete—yes, immature—but complete. An embryo is nascent human life. It’s genetically distinct. And it’s biologically human. It’s living. This position is consistent with my faith. But, to me, it isn’t just a matter of faith. It’s a fact of science. Our development is a continuous process—gradual and chronological. We were all once embryos. The embryo is human life at its earliest stage of development. And accordingly, the human embryo has moral significance and moral worth. It deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.” But he went on to say that he also "believe[s] that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported."

Let me get this straight. Human life begins at conception, making embryos human beings of moral worth and deserving of our respect. And yet we should encourage and fund the killing of these young human beings. Does anyone see a problem with this line of reasoning?

Granted, Frist limits his support of destructive embryo research to embryos left over from IVF clinics (he opposes cloning embryos for the purpose of destructive research), but that is not good enough. Even his limited approval is morally confused. As Steve Wagner from Stand to Reason noted, “On Frist’s stated view of the status of the embryo, she has the same value as the rest of us. Either Frist believes that anyone who is slated for destruction (death row inmates, parents who plan to starve their Down Syndrome newborns, the Yates kids) can be dismembered for research (with proper “ethical oversight” of course), or he doesn’t really believe his own well-crafted defense of the embryo as a fully valuable human being. I doubt he believes born people can be killed for research, so we have good reason to doubt his statement about the embryo.” (Steve Wagner, "Does Frist Mean What He Says? Does He Know What He Means?"; Internet, accessed 29 July 2005)

Frist said loosening Bush's strict limitations on stem cell research would lead to scientific advances and "bridge the moral and ethical differences" that have made the issue politically charged. What a claim this is! How will funding research that millions of people believe is morally equivalent to abortion bridge the moral divide over the issue? If anything it will fuel the politically charged issue to new levels. Ethical disagreements over certain types of biomedical research cannot be solved by politically strong-arming the funding of that ethically suspect research, but by examining the ethical issues involved, and providing a persuasive argument to the American people that would demonstrate whether the research is ethical or not.

He went on to say, "While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitation put into place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases [here we have the common "cures over ethics" rationale]. Therefore, I believe the president's policy should be modified. We should expand federal funding ... and current guidelines governing stem cell research, carefully and thoughtfully, staying within ethical bounds."

You missed the point, Bill. The issue is whether ESCR is itself an ethical form of research. If the research is unethical because it destroys nascent human life, then there is no way to perform such research in an ethical manner because the research requires an unethical act [side note: there is a potential method for obtaining embryonic stem cells that would not destroy the embryo called "altered nuclear transfer," but that is not what this bill will be funding]. To do the research at all is unethical.

The real problem is not trying to determine what should be done with the surplus embryos generated from IVF treatments, but the fact that surplus embryos continue to be created in the first place. While practical and financial considerations drive the current practice, the fact of the matter is that it is not necessary to create more embryos than can be implanted in a single treatment. We could pass a law that forbade the creation of more embryos than can be implanted in a single treatment (like they have in some European countries). Disallowing the possibility of surplus embryos would solve the moral and political debate over what should be done with them, because there would be no surplus embryos to debate about! If Frist and other likeminded legislators were truly interested in protecting the sanctity of human life, then along with advancing legislation to use the current leftover embryos they would also advance legislation to limit the number of embryos that can be created in future IVF treatments. But they don't. I can only conclude it is because they desire a continued source of embryos for destructive research.

Unfortunately Frist's opinion will probably influence some Republican senators to support the bill because Frist is a physician, and is looked to by his colleagues on medical matters (as if biological knowledge makes one an expert in bioethics, which is a field of philosophy). Frist's decision and influence could give the bill enough support to not only pass the Senate, but be veto-proof. That's not good news for the pro-life movement.


Related Articles:

What's the Big Deal About Those Tiny Little Embryos?
Charles Krauthammer's Embryonic Nonsense

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