Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist risked alienating the religious right, a constituency many say he needs to carry to be elected president in 2008, by announcing on the Senate floor on Friday that he supports federal funding for medical research using frozen human embryos that would otherwise be thrown away.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics credited Frist for seeking a "morally constructive solution" to the ethical dilemma of discarded embryos and for showing "the courage to break free from the grip of the religious right, which offers a shrill ideology with false solutions."
Four years ago President Bush approved for the first time funding for embryonic stem cell research, which many scientists believe holds promise for future treatment of currently incurable illnesses like diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and spinal cord injury.
But Bush stipulated that research could proceed only on stem cell lines that had already been harvested, banning the destruction of other embryos left over from fertility treatments to create new stem cells.
Addressing this year's Southern Baptist Convention via satellite, Bush mentioned his policy as part of an overarching effort to build a "culture of life" in America, which he said also includes appointing federal judges who "faithfully interpret the law and do not legislate from the bench."
Frist, R-Tenn., carried water for Bush's insistence that judges receive an up-or-down vote, at one point threatening to exercise a "nuclear option" to stop Democrats from using the filibuster to block votes on conservative judges before working out a compromise.
In April Frist participated in a televised and Webcast "Justice Sunday" rally at a Baptist church in Louisville, Ky., billed beforehand as declaring the filibuster against "people of faith." Many religious conservatives blame "activist" judges for allowing gay marriage and hope that Bush appointees to the Supreme Court will eventually overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling establishing a woman's right to abortion.
The Justice Sunday event was sponsored by the Family Research Council, which is now planning a follow-up "Justice Sunday II" Aug. 14 at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.
FRC President Tony Perkins on Friday criticized Frist for capitulating to the "biotech industry." Abortion foes like Perkins believe life begins at conception and advocate using only stem cells harvested from adults, which do not require the destruction of embryos.
But Frist, a medical doctor, said embryonic stem cells "uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide."
"I am pro-life. I believe human life begins at conception," Frist said. "It is at this moment that the organism is complete--yes, immature--but complete. An embryo is nascent human life. It's genetically distinct. And it's biologically human. It's living."
"This position is consistent with my faith," said Frist, a Presbyterian. "But, to me, it isn't just a matter of faith. It's a fact of science."
Despite that, Frist said he also believes embryonic stem cell research "should be encouraged and supported" in a "manner that affords all human life dignity and respect."
Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said he was "brokenhearted" by Frist's speech, according to Baptist Press.
Efforts to mobilize religious voters around pro-life and pro-family concerns, including Land's "iVoteValues" campaign, are widely credited with helping President Bush defeat Sen. John Kerry to win a second term last November. Yet polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly support stem cell research.
Land, who just last week was appointed by Frist to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he is confident Frist made his decision on stem cell research "based on conscience and principle rather than political calculation."
"Unfortunately, I could not disagree with him more on where his principles led him when it comes to the sacrifice of frozen embryos in the cause of searching for treatments for the ailments of older and bigger humans," said Land, who previously served on the commission under appointment by President Bush. "The pro-life cause should be extremely grateful that we have a president who will hold the line and veto such a bill if it comes to his desk."
Another Southern Baptist ethicist, Ben Mitchell, senior fellow of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, said, "It's simply not consistent with the life-affirming ethic to use the weakest members of our human family for purposes of research."
"It is never acceptable for the government to kill unwanted children," Mitchell said. "Abandonment is not a warrant for embryo-destructive research."
Previously in Baptist Press, Land called embryonic stem cell research an "immoral practice."
"It is fraught with ethical problems," Land said in a July 13 letter to senators. "Any good that may come from this avenue of research will be forever morally tainted."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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