Pro-life leaders lashed back at Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist today after his decision to break with President Bush and support legislation to remove some of the administration’s limitations on funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Focus on the Family Action founder James Dobson, noting Frist is a possible 2008 presidential candidate, said that if the policy change is for political purposes, the senator has “gravely miscalculated.”

Just last month, the Tennessee Republican said he opposed expanding federal financing of the research, but he insists the decision is consistent with both his experience as a physician and his pro-life stance.

“Now is the time to expand the president’s policy because it’s promising research, but it must be done in a way that is ethically considerate, that respects the dignity of human life,” said Frist, also a heart and lung transplant surgeon.

The senator said only stem cells from embryos that “would otherwise be discarded” should be considered for research.

In response, the 17,000 member Christian Medical Association said Frist’s endorsement would “turn living human beings into commodities for exploitation.”

“We have appreciated the senator’s thoughtful and principled stances on life issues in the past and are extremely disappointed to see what we consider a crucial moral lapse on this critical issue,” said CMA Executive Director David Stevens, M.D.

“As physicians, we understand the pressure to seek treatments from all possible sources, but we must remain committed to insuring that life-honoring ethics guide our decisions,” Stevens said. “Treating living human embryos as mere fodder for experimentation crosses a vital ethical line and contravenes the sanctity of human life.”

Stevens said the association continues to respect Frist as a colleague and friend, “but we must condemn any policy that devalues the sanctity of human life.”

Concerned Women for America called embryo research a “failed science that is structured around the destruction of human life.”

“It is mystery to us how the senator could claim that he believes life begins at conception and then immediately contradict that statement by adding, ‘I also believe embryonic stem-cell research should be encouraged and supported,” said Lanier Swann, CWA’s director of government relations. “It certainly gives one pause in trusting his commitment to the sanctity of life.”

Swann argued that hope for ailing patients already exists through the numerous advancements in adult stem-cell research.

While embryo research has not yielded a single result, more than 65 diseases already have been successfully treated through research of adult stem cells.

“Adult stem-cell research offers the promise of cures, not the mere ‘dream’ Frist spoke of today,” Swann said. “A ‘dream’ of cures through [embryo research] is a nightmare for the unborn.”

The National Clergy Council, which includes church leaders of Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox and Protestant traditions, asserted Frist’s insistence that he can believe life begins at conception and still support embryonic stem cell research is contradictory and “flies in the face of biblical and historical Christian moral teaching.”

“It’s the same as saying that we should use condemned criminals for medical experimentation because they’re going to die anyway,” said the council’s president, Rev. Rob Schenck.

Schenck called Frist’s position “morally incoherent” and said the senator can “no longer count on our support nor the support of the wider Evangelical or Catholic communities.”

Catholic League president William Donohue called Frist a “hypocrite” seeking political gain.

“His change of heart has nothing to do with any scientific breakthrough: There is no new evidence suggesting that the human embryo does not constitute human life, nor is there any evidence that embryonic stem cell research can be performed without killing embryos,” Donohue said. “What’s changed is that Dr. Duplicity wants to be president.”

Donohue noted Frist still calls himself “strong[ly] pro-life” and gives “huge moral significance to the human embryo.”

But that raises the question, the Catholic League leader says, “If it’s okay to snuff out the beginning of human life, how much dignity and respect may logically be accorded the dead?”

Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, says Frist should not expect support and endorsement from the pro-life community if he votes for embryonic research funding.

Mahoney says it is a contradiction in terms to say, “I believe life begins at conception,” and then support legislation that will result in the destruction of that innocent human life.

“If Senator Frist moves forward and votes to expand funding for embryonic stem cell research he is betraying his core belief that life begins at conception,” Mahoney said.

Almost two-thirds of Americans say they support embryonic stem cell research.

In 2001, Bush became the first president to open the doors for federal funding of the embryonic research, allowing existing lines of stem cells to be used. At that time 78 lines were thought to be available but the number since has dropped to 22.

“Those 22 cell lines are not of the quality for human application or human therapy, and that’s why today I believe we need to modify that policy,” Frist said.

But Dobson argued “there will never be a sufficient number of new stem-cell lines to satisfy the sometimes unquenchable thirst for federal money to fund pet projects of researchers.”

“A morally sound line must be drawn at the beginning of this journey into stem-cell research: that no human life is sacrificed for possible or proven scientific gain – period,” Dobson said.

“The media have already begun speculating that Sen. Frist’s announcement today is designed to improve his chances of winning the White House in 2008 should he choose to run,” Dobson continued. “If that is the case, he has gravely miscalculated. To push for the expansion of this suspect and unethical science will be rightly seen by America’s values voters as the worst kind of betrayal – choosing politics over principle.”

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