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The significance of President George W. Bush’s speech on embryonic stem-cell research is vastly underestimated by those who view it narrowly as a legal issue or as merely a decision defining what the government will or will not fund.

The true story, the one with historic significance, is what President Bush had to say about the context in which he made his decisions.

It is the context columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green defined in 1995, when she wrote, “Abortion asks us big questions about ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything.’ It asks ultimate questions like, ‘Who belongs in our human family?’ ‘Who may kill?’ and ‘When does life begin?’”

It is the context Leon Kass, a University of Chicago professor, had in mind when he wrote in a 1985 article, “Questions about the body are tied to questions about life, death, and soul; the whole cosmic picture is soon at issue.” Dr. Kass has been appointed by President Bush to head up a commission to develop guidelines and make recommendations concerning stem-cell research.

President Bush’s seminal decision was to fund research on stem cell “lines” taken from embryos that have already been destroyed – that is to say, “where the life-and-death decision has already been made.” But from this moment forward, the federal government will not support the destruction of a single human embryo to further stem-cell research.

Our president understands the implications of his decision. He said, “At its core, this issue forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginning of life and the ends of science. It lives at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with this prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages.”

In effect, the president laid down a marker. He would protect life in all its phases, including the embryonic phase. He gave the premise underlying his decision: “I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.”

Science now comprehends a continuum of life from conception to birth to maturity to death. A question begs to be asked: If human life deserves protection at its embryonic phase, is it not unconscionable that our society condones killing a baby seconds and inches before full delivery?

Let the debate begin! I suggest two questions to start the debate: When will the abortion industry concede that it is killing human beings? When will the Supreme Court recognize that even it cannot repeal biological truths about human life?

There are those who have a reverence for science – a rather blind faith that it is wrong to interfere with it. A few hundred years ago, the belief was widespread that science would eventually provide all the answers. Reason and rationality would triumph over religious dogma and produce a better world.

As religious scholar Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, this unqualified optimism spread and flourished as “man’s power over nature proceeded at such a pace that all doubts were quieted, allowing the 19th century to become the ‘century of hope.’”

The stage was set for man’s victory over nature and over his own irrational impulses. It was not to be. The 20th century, which was to have yielded the sweet fruits of scientific progress, was instead a century of massive brutality, wholesale carnage and random destruction such as the world had never seen.

We learned, or should have learned, that the advancement of science does not necessarily correspond with an advancement of virtue. When technology increases man’s power, it extends the impact and scope of his capability to do evil as well as good.

The separation of science from ethics and morality has been and can be disastrous. This was illustrated by Leo Alexander, a Boston psychiatrist, consultant to the office of chief counsel for war crimes in Nuremberg. In a remarkable paper written in 1949, “Medical Science Under Dictatorship,” Dr. Alexander described how in Nazi Germany, a pragmatic philosophy of “rational utility” replaced moral, ethical and religious values in dealing with human life. Millions were killed because they were “weak and useless” or because they were “genetically flawed,” and thousands were sacrificed to medical research.

President Bush has drawn a bright line and put down historic markers. It is now up to the people to decide whether human life in all its phases is a sacred gift from the Creator, or a commodity.

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