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A Delicate Balance

Author: Michael J. Gerson, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow
September 4, 2006


The issue of stem cells was the first test of the infant Bush administration, pitting the promise of medical discovery against the protection of developing life and prompting the president’s first speech to the nation. His solution—funding research on existing stem-cell lines, but not the destruction of embryos to create new ones—was seen as a smart political compromise. In fact, the president was drawing a bright ethical line. He argued that no human life should be risked or destroyed for the medical benefit of another. This was an intentional rejection of the chilly creed of utilitarianism—the greatest good for the greatest number—because the greatest number would gain the unrestricted right to extend their lives by ending or exploiting the lives of the weak.

Now the suggestion that science may be able to extract usable stem cells from early embryos without destroying them offers a technological answer to this ethical puzzle, and exposes some tensions within the pro-life movement.

In the reported experiment, every embryo was killed to extract their stem cells, a fact not likely to encourage enthusiasm in the pro-life community. But the growth of viable stem-cell lines from very early cells raises the prospect that these cells could be collected in more ethical ways, through existing fertility technologies that test for disease without ending a life. This method, as it stands, is still questionable, but it is testable.

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