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Science, ideology, and stem cells

LAST WEEK President Bush for the second time vetoed legislation that would have expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Reiterating a position he first announced in 2001, the president said that while he supports research on stem cells derived from human embryos that no longer exist, he will not use taxpayers' money for work that relies on the destruction of additional embryos.

"Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical, and it is not the only option before us," Bush said. That was a reference to promising advances in stem cell technology -- for example, the discovery that such cells can be harvested from amniotic fluid without endangering any embryo. The vetoed bill would have supported research on stem cells drawn from surplus fertility clinic embryos that will otherwise be discarded. Nevertheless, in Bush's view that would "cross a moral and ethical line."

Stem cells may eventually yield the key to treating devastating conditions, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, or spinal-cord injuries. Opinion polls show wide support for this research, so Bush's critics have not hesitated to pile on. Demagogues all but claim that if it weren't for Bush, fewer people would now be suffering from terrible afflictions. ("If we do . . . the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again" -- John Edwards, Oct. 11, 2004.)

I don't share Bush's position. By my lights, a microscopic "test-tube" embryo left over from in vitro fertilization is not a human person with an inalienable right to life. But neither is it of no significance whatsoever. I wouldn't draw the "moral and ethical line" where Bush has drawn it, but surely there is such a line and surely it belongs somewhere. A human embryo is not just another raw material, to be manipulated or destroyed at will. Even in nascent form, human life must be treated with dignity and care. How and under what circumstances embryos can be harvested for their stem cells are not just scientific questions. First they are questions of ethics and morality, and of the values we wish to live by.

Or are they? To judge from the criticism of Bush's stem cell veto last week, nothing outranks the claims of science, and only a zealot could think otherwise.

"With one pen stroke," charged Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, "President Bush has ignored hard science, embraced misplaced ideology, and turned his back on the millions who stand to benefit from . . . stem cell research."

Similarly, Senate majority leader Harry Reid blasted Bush for "putting the politics of his narrow ideology ahead of saving lives."

So did Senator Hillary Clinton: "This is just one example of how the president puts ideology before science."

And Senator Barack Obama: "The promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first."

What these statements have in common is their use of "ideology" as a pejorative for the principles and ethical values that have guided Bush's thinking on the stem cell issue. They treat "science" as an unqualified good, and reproach the White House for letting ethical qualms impede scientific progress. Yet not all science is progress. Not all ethical qualms are impediments.

It is for man to master science, not the other way around. Unfettered scientific investigation isn't always morally neutral, nor a sufficient end in and of itself. We all want diseases cured and lives prolonged, but there are ethical limits to how far we can go in acquiring knowledge that may one day save life. Embryonic stem cell research, as Bush notes, is at the leading edge of a series of moral hazards. It is not blind "ideology" to say so.

"You don't need religion to tremble at the thought of unrestricted embryo research," wrote Charles Krauthammer, a physician and former member of the President's Council on Bioethics, last January. "You simply have to have a healthy respect for the human capacity for doing evil in pursuit of the good. Once we have taken the position of many stem cell research advocates that embryos are discardable tissue with no more intrinsic value than a hangnail or an appendix, then all barriers are down. . . . The slope is very slippery."

I wouldn't have vetoed the bill Bush rejected. Nevertheless, I appreciate his effort to block that slippery slope. As science tugs us toward a brave new world of manufactured human life, it is more urgent than ever that moral boundaries not be ignored when biomedical public policy is made.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is