Bill Frist Isn't Inconsistent

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I've seen quite a few claims that Bill Frist has abandoned his pro-life principles by proposing federal funding for using stem cells from embryos that will be discarded anyway. See IntolerantElle's post and the links from there for examples. This post started as a comment on her post.

I think this argument goes too far. Frist isn't necessarily inconsistent on this. It's not clear at all that he's contradicting his pro-life stance. What he's proposing is that it's no more wrong for someone to kill these embryos by extracting stem cells than it is simply to throw them away. They will be destroyed. There's no way to prevent that given the current law that these embryos are the property of parents. He's suggesting that in destroying them the stem cells should be retained so that at least this immoral action can have some good consequences.

Nazi war crime experiments are a good analogy. The experiments were clearly wrong. What was also wrong was when the idiot Allied leaders insisted on throwing out the results of that research, as if the mere existence of the knowledge gained by immoral means has some immoral element. If we learned that we can cure cancer via a moral method, and the way we learned it was by finding the research of a scientist who did terrible things to people to find this information, we have a moral responsibility to preserve that knowledge, not to throw it out. You might even think it would be dishonoring to those who suffered at the hands of these scientists if you threw out the good that came of it.

Similarly, with stem cells, it may be immoral for these parents to kill their embryonic children, but the law gives them the right to do it. All Frist is proposing is that we extract the stem cells before we do it. Maybe there are moral considerations against that (e.g., having to do with honoring corpses unless they consent to have their bodies used for medical research), but it can't be merely because of the pro-life issue, because these embryos are going to be destroyed either way. Wanting to prevent that from being as much of a tragedy by using their stem cells to help people is not a clear contradiction with the pro-life view.

Frist would admit that the discarding of these embryos is a tragedy, but I think what he's going to insist on is that throwing out the stem cells with the embryos is even more immoral, and since we can't legally stop the throwing out of the embryos (with much more court precedent than would make it easy to pass a law to stop) we can at least save the stem cells and see if some good can come of it (which a law can much more easily allow). Add to this that what Frist wants to fund is already legal in itself but just isn't legal to use federal funding for. The laws on stem cell harvesting and embryo destruction are pretty loose compared to the laws on federal funding for such actions. Frist is proposing the the government step in to prevent a tragedy from being even worse of a tragedy. That does not in any clear or necessary way amount to a contradiction with pro-life principles.

You can put together an argument in defense of the Bush position against Frist's view, but I don't think it's going to involve premises that every pro-life person would share, and apparently Frist doesn't share the premises of the Bush argument. I'm not sure if I do. I'd have to see a more careful version of the argument than what people keep saying. All they say is that he's abandoned his concern that embryos are human beings with moral rights, which he hasn't done at all. He's simply said that taking something from someone whose rights are being violated, in a way that you can't stop, may actually be morally imperative rather than morally wrong.


Great point! I'm glad someone has made it.

Hi Jeremy,
I'm wondering if you would make the same argument regarding death row inmates about to be killed.

For example, it may be immoral for Texas to execute murderers but Texas law gives them that right. All Representative Smith wants to do is remove their valuable organs before we inject or electrocute them. These organs will save lives (not a vague promise or hope) so why shouldn't we make the most out of the lives that are going to be destroyed anyway. Since this research on organs from death row inmates will save lives, shouldn't we also use tax dollars to fund this research?

Wouldn't it be more consistently prolife to try to limit the number of embryos that are destroyed instead of advocating a scientifically progressive way of ending their lives?

I already answered that: "All Frist is proposing is that we extract the stem cells before we do it. Maybe there are moral considerations against that (e.g., having to do with honoring corpses unless they consent to have their bodies used for medical research), but it can't be merely because of the pro-life issue, because these embryos are going to be destroyed either way."

Your issue is one about honoring the bodies of dead people, not one about the pro-life view itself. If he's going to maintain his position, he has to respond to this argument. That doesn't mean his position is inconsistent with pro-life views. At most it means it's inconsistent with some view about whether you can remove body parts from someone who is going to die without permission. One complicating factor with embryos that doesn't arise with the death-row case is that an adult can consent and can express lack of consent. With children who can't consent, we usually leave it up to a parent. If I want to donate the body parts of a child of mine who dies, I can legally do so.

One's issue does not have to be about honoring the bodies of corpses. It could be that allowing organ harvesting or stem cell extraction (they are morally equivalent) encourages abortions and the death penalty. So it is wrong because of what it encourages.

I would be strongly against organ harvesting of those convicted of a capital crime even though I am strongly in favor of capital punishment. Yet my reasoning has nothing to do with the treatment of dead bodies.

My reasoning in the capital case has to do with encouraging convictions on a monetary basis rather than a guilt basis. In the fetal case, the encouragement is helping abortions. I do not see how someone who believes that abortion is wrong can help along a process that encourages that activity. Perhaps that is where the connection is drawn.

I don't think that would be so in this case, empirically speaking. There are far more embryos being destroyed than there's federal funding to pay for stem cells from, so there's little chance people will freeze extra embryos or destroy embryos they wouldn't otherwise destryo to meet the demand.

I don't think this is the argument people have in mind. It seems to me more like the Nazi experiments parallel, as if somehow the result of the research has this magical property of being tainted because of how the research was done. That even came up in the discussion I linked to.

I think the other error is in assuming pro-life entails thinking events immediately after conception entail ethics akin to what we'd give a baby. A lot of people assume that. There are arguments for it, but it certainly isn't inconsistent to disagree with the "life starts at conception" or related views.

But doesn't the fact that the removal of stem cells is what kills these human embryos have some impact?

For example, would it be proper to kill a toddler who was going to die anyway (he had some rare genetic defect) by removing their heart, kidneys, etc. just because their parents consented?

Could the fact that people know their embryos will be used for federal funded research encourage some people to donate these embryo to science instead of say giving them up for adoption or trying to bring another child to birth? Kind of in the same way that fetal tissue research might legitimize the abortion decision for some.

That's right. Insisting that a fetus has moral status does not entail insisting that it has the same moral status as a newborn, and the same goes for embryos to fetuses. Frist can't disagree with life starting at conception. That would go against clear science. He can't even go against moral rights beginning at conception without altering his previous stance. What he could do is say that early stages of human life, while they all involve moral rights, are equivalent with later ones in terms of which rights there are or which moral principles might be strong enough to be morally important enough that rights can be outweighed.

I don't think he wants to say any of those things, however, and my argument was that he doesn't need to say any of that to avoid the charge of inconsistency.

Using the cells from embryos/babies creates a market for those cells. Parents of these children will be encouraged to destroy them for the "common good". If every parent took a stand that their embryo/baby deserves a chance at life, the option wouldn't be "waste them" or "use them" but rather "find another willing, loving home for them".

Many good people went down a path that had moral consequences. They received great blessings (the babies they had) and great curses (the babies still on ice) from this path. They also received medical advice from people who did not consider all the unintended consequences.

Letting the free hand of the market take over at this point and create a demand for this "biological material" isn't a satisfactory out.

As I already said, there are so many embryos destroyed all the time that this just isn't going to create a market. Allowing people to sell these cells might create a market for them. Allowing people to use them certainly would not. Since people already do use them, I'm sure all you have to do is look at how many people are already selling them. All this bill proposes is using government funding for research involving cells taken from these embryos. It doesn't, as far as I know, involve paying people for those cells.

If we were going to require people to find a willing, loving home for them, we would need to overcome even more resistance than there is to overturning Roe v. Wade. It would require a constitutional amendment to overthrow Roe v. Wade for Congress to require such a thing, in fact. Roe basically declares that these things have no rights, so there's no ground for a law requiring people to implant them if it's legal to have an abortion at a much later stage. This is something that Frist simply can't do anything about.


By requiring the government to spend money on this research, Frist will promote a market for the by-products of the work whether or not embryos/babies are already dying or not. By market, I don't mean that the government will be paying people for their children, but rather a demand will be created for this "biological material" and the knowledge created from it. Sometimes one market can crowd out another. Embryo/baby based stem cell research may crowd out other stem cell research with the influx of new embryo/baby stem cell lines. There is a buzz surrounding this stuff. A market has already developed in some senses.

When I speak of parents finding homes for their embryos/babies, I don't mean that in a government enforced sense. Christians would do well to adopt this attitude. They don't need a repeal of Roe v. Wade, just an internal awakening to the issue. You're right, Frist can't do much about this part of the issue.

I actually take no position on the consistency or inconsistency of Bill Frist. I think he is making a mistake in his position. I think it will affect him politically. However, I am not saying that I would not vote for him in a primary or as party nominee for President. (I actually did vote for him in a on-line straw pole just before he dropped da bomb on us.) I want to hear more of what he has to say about the issue and how his position has changed (or not) over time and what it says about what is important to him.

The demand is already there, though. This isn't creating it. It's the supply that isn't there. It may be that if the research is effective, it will lead to more demand, but that will happen one way or the other. This sort of research is going on. It's just not paid for by government funding except in the case of what's left of the original stem cell lines that Bush allowed use of.

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