First Principles and the "Frist Principles"

by Richard Doerflinger

July 20, 2001

A couple of interesting things happened at a recent Senate hearing on stem cell research. News media covered one of those things, and not very well. The full picture has horrifying implications for our future.

The media reported that Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, known as a pro-life Republican and the Senate's only physician member, testified in favor of funding stem cell research that requires destroying human embryos. Senator Frist claimed that while such research is "untried and untested" it also has "huge potential," and so should be funded even as we show "the highest moral regard" for the embryos we kill in the process.

So far this is the tale of another Senator who threw away his pro-life convictions citing a hope of medical benefits. Sadly, Frist's reference to "moral regard"sounded like the hypocrisy of President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which concluded that embryos deserve "respect" as human lives but should be killed for their stem cells. What is the "respectful" way to suck out a living being's innards and throw away the shell?

Receiving less media attention was Frist's announcement that federal funding of this research "should be contingent on the implementation of strict new safeguards," to prevent abuse of his newfound loophole in respect for life. Without a trace of irony he presented these as "Frist Principles on Human Stem Cell Research."

Some of these "principles" are just silly. For example, one calls for "independent scientific and ethical review" of the research by the Institute of Medicine and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. This is like calling for independent review of the henhouse by the foxes, since IOM and Secretary Thompson both favor destructive embryo research. Another principle would make standards for fetal tissue research "consistent" with the rules for embryo research. This seems to mean that researchers could perform abortions solely to obtain fetal tissue for government research, just as they may kill live embryos solely to obtain stem cells.

There were also "principles" that pro-life Americans can and do support: Ban human cloning; continue the ban on directly funding destruction of human embryos; ban the creation of embryos solely for research. These should be pursued in their own right, not as "trade-offs" for government-sanctioned experimentation on some humans.

In this context, nonetheless, Frist proposed that it could be "pro-life" for the government, for the first time in U.S. history, to fund research on stem cells obtained by killing human embryos. Only embryos "that would otherwise be discarded" will be used – which is like saying that the government will fund abortions only for unborn children not wanted by their parents.

Not covered at all by most media is what happened to the "Frist Principles" when they were presented to Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), the Senate's chief promoters of embryo research and the conveners of this hearing. The principles got massacred.

Frist's effort to limit the number of embryos killed was denounced by Senator Specter and several like-minded scientists, who said hundreds of cell lines may be needed for valid scientific results. One researcher said that ten thousand may be needed, to obtain a close genetic "match" to most patients needing tissue. (Keep in mind that each cell line requires destroying many embryos. Recently a fertility clinic in Virginia created and destroyed over a hundred embryos to get three cell lines.) Human cloning – creating and killing embryonic "copies" of each patient to obtain genetically tailored stem cells – was called the best way to provide tissue that will not be rejected by patients' bodies, and Harkin and Specter raised no objection.

Senator Specter also asked a representative of the National Institutes of Health whether the NIH needs to be able to destroy its own stock of human embryos to do high-quality research. When the official hesitated at taking this step, Specter angrily threatened to make massive cuts in total NIH spending unless she expressed support for federal embryo farms.

In other words, proponents of this grotesque research have no need for Senator Frist's compromises. They think they have support for their real agenda: Government embryo farming, creating human life in the lab solely to destroy it, cloning to make multiple human guinea pigs. The whole frightening Brave New World is before our eyes -- which should help us concentrate on what the real issue is.

Senator Frist said his support for funding embryonic stem cell research is "contingent" on these principles, and the principles were ridiculed and rejected by his newfound pro-abortion friends. He now may realize they are no friends. And President Bush might learn from the fate of the hapless Bill Frist: There's no negotiating with the ideologues who want a Brave New World. The only reasonable approach to embryonic stem cell research is not to do it at all.

Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.