Life, Bio-Ethics and Our Present Political Climate

Two bio-ethical issues have recently been debated and decided at the federal level in an attempt to create a culture more favorable to human life. The first was the Senate bill to allow federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. As is widely known President Bush vetoed this bill, his first veto in nearly six years in office. Some rather consistently pro-life senators voted for this particular measure, including majority leader Bill Frist, himself a devoutly pro-life Christian physician. (Senator Frist’s dad was my late father’s personal physician in Nashville and thus our family has held highest regard for the Frist family for many years.) Those who favored this measure argued that embryonic stem-cells provide much potential for curing diseases like Parkinson’s, a disease that my father-in-law suffered from for more than a decade prior to his painful death in late 2004. For this reason I confess that I respond to the emotional arguments that surrounded this bill with some real life experience. At the same time I fear, like other social conservatives, that this bill was, in actuality, an ethical “Trojan horse.” It is not clear to me that stem cells harvested from frozen embryos have that much real scientific value. There appears to be no clear consensus on this conclusion within the scientific and medical community. Further, it seems what some researchers really want here is approval to clone new embryos en masse so that they can have a limitless supply of stem cells. The National Review suggested that this particular senate bill was a “half-way measure” to promote the ultimate goal of “fetal farming.” The National Review seems to have gotten this right when it concluded that the federal government should “not be party to the destruction of nascent human lives.”

The most compelling argument I hear is that these embryos are not yet human and thus they are only “potential” life. And, it is further reasoned, they will be destroyed anyway if they are not used for research like this so why not use them for the purpose of saving lives. The argument against this view is that “nascent” human life is sacred because of the value of created human life. And when nascent human life is not respected at one level a door is thereby opened to respect it less at other levels as we go further down this ethically troubled road. I do not expect pro-abortion advocates to accept these kinds of arguments. What is surprising to me is that many pro-life people do not accept it either. I am not convinced that frozen embryos are human in the fullest sense thus the word “nascent” seems to get it about right. We are not seeking to save a blob of cells or some kind of human material here. What we believe, and this is important to bio-ethical understanding, is that these embryos are “nascent human life.”

Another important bill that touches on bio-ethics (at least indirectly) passed the senate last night. This bill holds adults to be guilty of a federal crime if they take minors across state lines to get an abortion without the approval of the girl’s parents. The bill passed the senate by a 65-34 vote and was immediately hailed by President Bush who will quickly sign it. Said Bush, “Transporting minors across state lines to bypass parental consent laws regarding abortion undermines state law and jeopardizes the lives of young women.” Critics accused the majority of playing politics in an election year. (As if neither party plays politics in an election year!) Detractors said the bill would endanger teenage girls who face abusive parents and would criminalize grandparents and clergy who assisted her. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said, “Our government cannot legislate positive family relationships in every home.” Well, of course it can’t senator. But this bill is not about “positive family values.” It is about a minor getting an abortion with the aid of an adult who is not her parent.

The American public overwhelming believes that parents should be the primary voice in health-care decisions for their minor children. But critics of this decision argued that fathers who committed incest would be able to make the decision about a daughter’s abortion. The irony of this argument is that most fathers who do commit incest, and then discover that their daughter is pregnant, insist they get an abortion. Often they even pressure the girl to have the procedure. A last-minute deal was stuck last evening by the sponsor of the bill and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an opponent of the measure. This bill, passed by a 98-0 vote, prevents men who have committed incest from suing any individual who takes their daughter to another state for an abortion.

The list of those senators who voted no on this bill is interesting. First, it includes four Republicans. The most striking name is Arlen Specter. Of the 29 Democrats who voted no the names of Clinton, Biden, Durbin and Feingold are not surprising at all. But I had hoped for better from my own Illinois senator, Barack Obama. I watch his every vote these days since he honestly confessed a measure of conflict about these kinds of issues in a recent Christian testimony he gave in association with Jim Wallis and his Sojourners enterprise. I was further surprised that Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a morally conservative man of faith, also voted no. Politics is a world of loyalty and constituency. This works on both sides of the aisle. Those who believe, as I do, that these kinds of life issues matter deeply must continue to educate people, pray and hold our elected official accountable for their responses to issues that reflect the value and importance of human life. We should also pray for the day that Roe vs. Wade is reversed by the people through their elected officials. The sooner our courts do not make law the better it will be for everyone. We are one small step closer to such a wonderful day by these two incremental decisions that will surely make waves in the mid-term election season this fall.

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