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Tue, Oct. 15

Column: 'Sanctity of life' too complex for narrow views

In addition to hot-button issues like Iraq and global warming, another important debate in Washington has been over stem cell research.

Twice now, including this past week, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have eased federal restrictions in this area. While the Senate holds almost enough votes to over-ride a veto, the House of Representatives doesn't, meaning that the bill is essentially doomed.

Also perhaps doomed by this veto are the millions of people with various disorders and their loved ones who have been holding out hope for a miracle cure. Scientists have speculated that perhaps they can treat such ailments as cancer, hereditary diseases and spinal cord injuries through gene therapies, including stem cell research.

I won't pretend to understand the science of this, and I'm generally leery of concepts like "genetic manipulation" and "biomedical engineering." Nonetheless, a significant and credible chorus of voices contend that it's possible to alleviate much human suffering through the application of these emerging medical technologies.

Research in these areas still goes forward despite the President's veto, albeit more slowly without federal support. In this sense, the enactment of a bill is more symbolic than substantive in the debate over stem cell research and its potentialities. Whatever promise these therapies hold science is likely to realize one way or another, with the critical aspect for many afflicted people being how soon.

What's especially troubling is the "sanctity of life" argument Bush has used to issue the vetoes.

I'm actually quite moved by pro-life arguments, yet often find a blatant inconsistency in being against abortion while supporting warfare and capital punishment. A true pro-life platform would include greater access to health care, education, social services and equal opportunities. If we're willing to conclude that life begins at conception, then we should further maintain that the sanctity of that life continues from there, and grows even stronger with the passage of time.

As far as philosophical debates go, the concept of "life" is one of the thorniest. Where it comes from, how we define it, who's entitled to it and when does it actually end are among our most challenging metaphysical queries. In many ways, these may well be the central questions to which all social issues can trace their origins. As such, I don't believe that this inquiry is subject to ownership by any particular political party, religious system or secular ideology. This is a subject we all ought to have a say about.

I recently learned that doctors have diagnosed one of my infant son's friends with cystic fibrosis, a hereditary degenerative disease with no current cure. As his parents struggle to cope with this news, consider that the single best hope for people in situations like this might be stem cell research. People with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, heart conditions, arthritis, diabetes, muscular dystrophy and a host of other ailments are likewise looking for hope.

Will cures come in time? Perhaps, if we free the meaning of "sanctity of life" from narrow conceptions.

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