Originally Published: May 29, 2005 5 a.m.
Recently, President Bush went before cameras holding in his arms a month-old baby named Trey Jones.
The picture raised a question that supporters of embryonic stem cell research would rather not answer: Would the world be better off if Trey had been killed as an embryo to advance medical research?
That is what would happen to thousands of other embryos under the bill the House of Representatives approved this past week at least if the supporters realize their hopes and it would happen with the approval and help of the federal government. The measure would scrap the policy Bush adopted in August 2001, when he agreed to government financing of such research only if it relied on already existing stem cell lines.
He drew a clear line: Medical science can exploit the products of embryos that already had died, but the federal government would not be an accomplice to studies that require additional killing. It was a modest restriction, since it did not prevent researchers from destroying other embryos, if they got their money from someplace besides Washington.
But it established the principle that we should not do some things, even in the hope of healing.
That principle doesn't look to be terribly popular on Capitol Hill. The House bill would allow federally financed research on embryos created in fertilization clinics that clinics otherwise would discard, and that parents donate. Never mind that we don't have to destroy frozen embryos their parents don't need. It's possible to implant them in the wombs of willing mothers, as Trey Jones was.
Bush has promised to veto the bill. But this may not be the last word from Congress: Other bills would not only allow the destruction of "surplus" embryos, but permit cloning of new embryos that would face destruction.
Californians voted this past year to provide $3 billion in state money to subsidize experimentation on embryos created solely for that purpose. The Massachusetts Legislature has sent the governor a bill to allow such "therapeutic cloning."
Few of us would indulge scientists who proposed to dismember an actual baby, even if we knew doing so would save lives. But we find ways to excuse the dismemberment of embryos that need only nine months to become babies. Convenience trumps conscience.
Those who want to remove existing limits say we could get a lot from embryonic stem cell research. What would we lose? Wait a few years, and Trey Jones might be willing to tell you.