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Mon, Oct. 21

Bush's stem cell stance not implausible at all

By now, we all know the crucial question about embryonic stem cell research.

Advocates have put it plainly: Should we dump unused frozen embryos residing in fertility clinics down the drain ­ or should we use them to cure diabetes, Alzheimer's, paralysis and other health scourges?

Confronted with that question, the U.S. House of Representatives voted this past month to provide federal money for experimentation on these embryos, despite the threat of a presidential veto. As Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., put it, the only embryos subject to destruction for medical research are those that "would otherwise be destroyed. That is, embryos that held the promise of life but are certain not to fulfill that promise."

It's a persuasive argument that many well-meaning people find hard to reject ­ but one made up almost entirely out of myths.

The choice we face is one very different from that its advocates portray.

Start with the claim that 400,000 frozen embryos otherwise would go to waste. The truth is that most of them are anything but "surplus." According to a 2003 survey by researchers at the Rand Corp., a California think tank, 88 percent of them are in storage for their original function: to make babies for their parents.

Just 2.2 percent of the embryos have been designated for disposal, and less than 3 percent for research. The latter group amounts to about 11,000 embryos.

When the president had a White House event for parents who adopted embryos from fertility clinics, his critics ridiculed the suggestion that this approach could accommodate 400,000 embryos. Finding parents for 11,000 embryos, however, is not so far-fetched. Every year, 125,000 adoptions take place in this country.

In that case, Bush's solution doesn't sound implausible at all. As a recent article in the online magazine Slate noted, embryo adoption "is a thriving business these days, for many reasons. For one thing, donated embryos are cheap" ­ cheaper than in vitro fertilization, and cheaper than conventional adoption. In addition, the idea has caught on among "pro-life" Christians who feel a religious duty to help save these embryos.

What's more surprising is that the House bill may not actually make use of these "excess" embryos. It says parents must elect to discard them "prior" to the consideration of embryo donation" ­ and only later decide to donate them for research.

Maybe most Americans will support creating vast farms of tiny embryos that scientists can cull like cattle for their stem cells. But if that's where this train is going, we ought to know it before we get on board.

E-mail Steve Chapman through the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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