Bill Frist’s Incoherent Position on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Senator Bill FristSenator Bill Frist is a political conservative. He is a Republican. He claims to be pro-life. And he is dead wrong on embryonic stem cell research.

Senator Frist contributed an opinion editorial to the Washington Post on Tuesday titled “Meeting Stem Cells’ Promise — Ethically.” In this piece he makes an absolutely morally incoherent argument in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Why is his argument incoherent? Because he claims to hold the pro-life convction that from conception all life has value, yet at the same time he claims that some of those valuable lives can and should be killed.

In the first paragraph, he asserts his pro-life bona fides: “I am pro-life. I recognize that human life begins at conception . . . human life has value at all stages of development.” But then without any serious argument or moral justification, he says the following:

Embryonic stem cells could eventually help treat spinal cord injuries, mitigate diabetes, repair damaged organs, relieve pain and preserve lives. Even though cures may take years to develop, I believe that we cannot ignore the promise these cells hold . . .

Thus I’m supporting legislation that’s gotten enormous attention: a bill that will let scientists use federal funds for research with embryonic stem cells derived from embryos that families created for in vitro fertilization but that are now ready to be discarded and destroyed. I hope that we can redeem this loss of life in part by using these embryos to seed research that will save lives in the future. Under this policy, so long as they follow ethical guidelines, researchers will have as many stem cell lines as they can produce (source).

As best I can tell, Senator Frist’s position amounts to this: “I believe that because some humans will be unceremoniously discarded and killed anyway, the U.S. government should fund experiments that will kill them first.”

There can only be one of two explanations for this kind of moral nonsense: (1) Senator Frist does not understand what the pro-life position really is, that human life deserves protection under law from conception to natural death, or (2) he understands that these little embryos are humans but thinks they should be killed because medical advances are more important than human life.

There is absolutely no rational reason for a person who says that they believe that life begins at conception to be in favor of research that would destroy human embryos. This is an indefensible position, and maybe that’s why Senator Frist doesn’t defend it in his op-ed.

I’ve heard worse things come out of the mouths of U. S. Senators, but this is not the kind of thing one would expect to hear from someone who is supposed to be a conservative statesman.

I’ll be looking forward to President Bush’s veto of the bill.

(See also: “Senate Passes Stem Cell Bill; Bush Vows Veto” – Washington Post)


21 thoughts on “Bill Frist’s Incoherent Position on Embryonic Stem Cell Research”

  1. I agree with you Denny, in that Frist can’t have it both ways. Certainly, he is inconsistent.

    But is keeping an embryo frozen for an indetermiment period of time somehow more palatable? The destruction of life should not be acceptable, but where’s the outrage that we could treat embryos so poorly by making a bunch of them and freezing the leftovers?

    If, as many prolifers believe, life begins at conception, then freezing the embryos and then forgetting them should be unacceptable and prolifers should fight against it. This is hardly the “life” God intended.

  2. Folks,

    I don’t have a strong opinion on this matter, but one comment jumped out at me as possibly problemmatic.

    Brian W. referred to discarded embryos as contradictory to “the ‘life’ God intended.” Just doing a quick Google search, and looking at a couple websites, it appears that, in the U.S., about 1 in 4 pregancies end in miscarriage. If God intended that fertilized embryos result in successful births, then why does failure seem to be such a regular element to pregnancy? And I can only assume that things are worse in countries where women don’t have access to trained obstetricians.

  3. Thanks for the articles, Denny. I’m glad someone is bringing this up. But in my evangelical circles, I hardly hear this as an issue. In fact, I would say one of the reasons we turn a blind eye to this (somewhat, at least)is because of our emotions. We see Joe and Susie, the nicest young couple in our church, and they can’t get pregnant. It’s been their dream to raise a large, Christian family. So eventually they try IVF and it works. And the chorus is, “God is so faithful; God provided.” I’ve seen these stories in Christian communities. So while our heart breaks for Joe and Susie, somehow it doesn’t for the the confused, deceived young girl who’s had everybody lie to her. I get frustrated by these kinds of inconsistencies.

    Scott, thanks for your thoughts. I was trying to raise the idea that I don’t think God intended “humans” (as most evangelicals believe embryos to be) to be frozen for a period of their life and then discarded. You rightly point out (explicitly or implicitly, I’m not sure) that we wrongly assume continued biological life as God’s intention. We fail to see death as a necessary component to true life. Concerning your example, the difference to me is that life (in whatever form) should be the prerogative of the Author of Life, not me.

  4. Brian, I certainly see your point, but I imagine that you would allow for some exceptions to the statement “that life . . . should be the prerogative of the Author of Life.” After all, I assume that you don’t wholly discount the practice of medicine in general. But don’t doctors assert their prerogative when they save a patient’s life? You may say medicine is a worthy practice because it seeks to preserve life, but this nevertheless results in a necessary qualification to your earlier statement.

    For a slightly different example: what do you make of America’s current foreign policy of preemption, of fighting the war on terror “over there” before terrorists have a chance to fight us over here? Isn’t that a case where we are killing lives to preserve others, and thereby taking matters of life and death out of God’s hands?

  5. First off, I can respect a “no embroyonic stem cell research” stance far more when coupled with a stance of “no IVF” either. So, a tip of the hat to you, Denny.

    The other question (I have a typically brash statement to make, but not nearly the time to make it at the moment) I have here and now then, is, if I am to take what Brian is saying to its next plausible conclusion, do you also not believe in the use of any birth control amongst married couples? Should it completely be left up to chance?

    Just wondering…


  6. Paul,

    Do you think God would take offense in you saying that married couples conceiving is a game of chance?


  7. Jason,

    ummm, nope. Why?

    1) God knew me when he knitted me in the womb. He knows I speak of Him with only complete reverence. And he also knows that he created someone who thinks in a slightly off-kilter manor.

    2) A woman is only fertile, what, 3 days out of her cycle? Considering the length of time it takes for sperm to get to egg, the fact that the woman’s immune system considers sperm to be the enemy, and that there are numerous other challenges for both sperm and egg to face, it’s really actually fairly shocking that women actually ever get pregnant in the first place! And even more shocking that as many children are born healthy!

    In other words, even though God knows exactly when and where and why things will happen, we do not. We do not know when our wives eggs will drop every month (although we might have a good idea when). We do not know if all of the conditions will be met, yadda, yadda, yadda. So, therefore, insofar as WE can tell, it’s chance.

    Anyway, please, answer the question…

  8. Interesting that we have comments only by males here. As a female christian that longs to have a biological child with her husband I fully agree with Prof. Burk. See my post on the subject today at

    You cannot have it both ways. I also agree with Brian that the “Author of Life” is the one to determine the length and quality of that life. We live in a sin soaked world. Yes, God created the life but then Man steps in and decides that is should be suspended in time, frozen until deemed worthy to continue to develop. At this point likely damaged to the point of death. Worse yet, discarded as “medical waste”.

    When a person seeks medical care, that doctor is intervening to sustain a life. They are not choosing to destroy it. IVF can be used and still glorify God. The couple simply decides how many children the woman is willing and able to carry. Let’s say 3 maximum. Only three eggs should be fertilized and then all three implanted. What generally happens is 15-30 are fertilized, 3 are implanted and 1-3 result in a viable pregnancy…leaving 12-27 babies to be frozen, thrown away, or as some would hope, used for medical research.

    Again, please see me blog for more.

  9. Tori,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful remarks. Let me just add to what you have said a story that I read today. This story illustrates the moral quandry that results from In Vitro Fertilization when too many embryos are produced:

    Aanis Elspas is a mother of four. Unlike most parents, she had three of her children simultaneously. The nine-year-old triplets were born in 1997 after Elspas underwent a series of in vitro fertilization treatments for infertility. . . . The problem is that Elspas also has 14 embryos left over from the treatment that produced her 10-year-old. The embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen at a California frozen storage facility–she is not entirely sure where–while Elspas and her husband ponder what to do with them.

    Give them away to another couple, to gestate and bear? Her own children’s full biological siblings–raised in a different family? Donate them to scientific research? Let them . . . finally . . . lapse? It is, she and her husband find, an intractable problem, one for which there is no satisfactory answer. So what they have done–thus far–is nothing. Nothing, that is, but agonize. . . .

    Elspas is by no means alone, either in having frozen human embryos she and her husband must eventually figure out what to do with, or in the moral paralysis she feels, surveying the landscape of available choices (from “Souls On Ice: America’s Embryo Glut”).

    (HT: James Taranto)

  10. Scott,

    Yes, there are qualifications to my statement. Maybe the qualifier of “ultimately” would be appropriate. As to your example, I would say that our desire as followers of Christ would be to assert God’s prerogative. So as Christ’s body, I want to act as he would act. Now, that becomes difficult, doesn’t it, with varying ideas and views as to what Christ would do in various situations? But I think most of us could agree that we are following our Master’s example by providing necessary food and water (or other biological necessities) to preserve biological life while hopefully puting ourselves in positions to talk about True Life.

    As for your example of preemption: while that may be part of the Bush Doctrine, I’m quite certain it wouldn’t be part of the doctrine of Christ. I believe some of us have talked about that on this blog before, so I’ll leave it at that.

  11. Dear Friends,

    There is no doubt that this issue brings the opportunity for thinking much and saying much. Let’s face it, our technology has created a moral quandry that would have been unthinkable in the not so distant past.

    However, I would just advise caution when we speak of these fertility issues in light of the reality of couples who are desperate to have children. These discussions are not taking place in a vacuum. We need to have scripturally rooted thoughts about this issue. But I’ll tell you what…there is nothing that can get the emotional juices flowing more quickly than talking about this issue with those that are facing the questions of infertility.

    Speak truthfully…speak compassionately.

  12. Let me give an “amen” to Rodney’s comment in #13. Also, let me commend to you Dr. Russell Moore’s discussion of how churches should minister to people going through the pain of infertility. You can download the mp3 of the discussion here.

  13. Rodney,

    I agree with you completely. I am half of one of those “couples who are desperate to have children”. We currently are labeled with “unexplained infertility”. We are almost 3 1/2 years into this journey. Our desire to have a bilogical child is as great as our desire to glorify God and to value life as He commands. The truth can be harsh. However, there is much value in exposing the lies being told to many who desire a child. Lies such as calling the newly formed baby “a cluster of cells”, or “biological tissue”. It’s a baby, a life, a newly formed human being created by the hand of God.

    The people who need to hear these discussions the most are “those that are facing the questions of infertility”. They need to be able to make informed decisions void of regret. They need to know that just because their pastor and his wife conceived with IVF and froze 10 other children to add to the almost 400,000 frozen embyos in the U.S. (according to a survey quoted in the washington post) that life should be valued at the sigle cell level.

    So please, keep discussing for the sake of 400,000 frozen or discarded (killed) babies. Pray that God would open some wombs, bring an oprhan a family, or redirect that passion for nurturing the next generation into serving Him.

  14. Dr. Burke has the skillz that pay the billz when it comes to driving. You almost hit that black caprice on 635, but you must have Midas brakes or something. My wave was ignored, and rightly so, because I am sure that you did not recognize me. I will say hi to Luke for you.


  15. According to a 2004 article in Christianity Today entitled “Frozen Out”, the most popular option for Christian IVF couples who have additional unused embryos is to store them indefinitely.

    Is this any more ethical of an action than using the embryos for stem-cell research? I’m just not sure. That doesn’t mean an automatic argument for stem-cell research, but I think it does indicate that a different question needs to be asked from the get-go. Namely, is the technology that creates such “extra” embryos appropriate–ie honoring to God?

    There’s something in me (maybe it’s the baby presently kicking) that cringes at IVF because of the world’s many orphans. As a gestating mother myself, I recognize the inappropriateness of suggesting that infertile couples should just give up the ghost, quit their whining, and adopt an unwanted child. However, I confess there’s a little of that in me.

    Indeed, why do we as an American culture–more particularly as evangelical Christians within that American culture–seem to believe that having your own children is more important and blessed than adopting another’s? I’d argue that the latter is more blessed, for it displays further the beautiful design of the Church; the unity of man and woman in marriage is the initial significant display of that mystery, and adopting a child would only further that demonstration within the temporal institution of the family. I pray my husband and I will boldly put on such a show in the years to come, should the Lord tarry so long.

    Let families grip less tightly to their nuclear entities and instead cling to their imaging of the Church!

    For more on this, I also recommend Christian ethicist Amy Laura Hall, especially in her 2004 Christianity Today interview entitled “Unwanted Interruptions”. I’m going to have to blog on that later too.

  16. Jen,

    Thanks for the comment. I think creating embryos to store indefinitely is unconscionable. I am just as exercised about what IVF therapies do with embryos as I am with stem-cell researhers.

    I think you would like Russell Moore’s take on IVF and adoption. It’s much like yours (see mp3 linked above).


  17. Thank you for your comments, Jen Strange. John Piper calls adoption “the Gospel made visible.” It is a picture of what Christ has done for us – giving us new life, a name, rights of inheritance.

  18. The problem here is two pronged,as I see it:

    1) There’s little to no discussion on the other (non-emryonic) stem cells that can be found throughout the body. Bone marrow, baby teeth pulp, blood, etc, etc, etc. Especially if these have been proven to be more helpful than has been seen in the limited use of embryonic cells.

    Not only does there need to be more discussion, but that discussion needs to come from more even keeled sources than whackjobs like Pat Robertson and James Dobson! When they talk about something, it practically ruins its credibility. But, there are indeed wiser and less nutty folks in the world who are saying the same things that they’re saying, and they need to be given more of a voice!

    2) Frankly, the pro-life (more aptly, pro-birth) movement has made their bed, and now they’re sleeping in it. Allow me to explain…

    a) when you allow people to politicize your religion, you’re allowing them to poison your religion. You know, when people who are supposed to be Christians, who were supposed to know that verse about how the meek shall inherit the earth, and who are supposed to know all of the verses in the law books that talk about the forgiveness of debt, and that it is the duty of all of us to help out the poor and the sick…those all got pushed to the wayside because those poor people can’t make campaign contributions. So, out with the poor, in with the bankruptcy reform act. Out with the poor, in with cutting the empowerment zones funding AS YOUR SECOND ACT IN OFFICE! But, luckily for the republicans, lots of people are pro-life. And luckily for the republicans, nearly everyone hates gay people. Especially when they don’t have to say it out loud.

    So, what happens? Our rich and beautiful religion of love, peace and redemption gets turned into a religion of saving the little babies and then killing them with toxic air, lack of funding in the inner cities and no federal spending at all on adoption services to provide for all of these “unwanted” kids that are being born. And let’s not forget the well underfunded No Child Left Behind Act.

    Pro-Birth? Definitely. Pro-Life? Not so much.

    And so, if that religion was already compromised, you can expect it to be compromised EVEN MORE when 70% of the nation supports a bill that might offend that now-dilluted religion. What’s more important for a politician? Morals which for the most part they don’t have, or getting votes, which are their means of survival?

    In other words, Denny, you can’t be serious about questioning Frist’s stance on this. He’s pro-life as it relates to getting re-elected in Tennessee. He’s pro-life as it might relate to making a run at the White House in 2008. You can’t for a second expect him to be pro-life in a situation where it’s bound to cost him votes. But, supposedly, he’s a Christian who would never sell out his “core” values for those darned evil liberals.

    And that’s why you see him as wrong.

    And that’s why I see him as wrong AND as a hypocrite.

    And I agree with Scott, as well. All of these “neocons” are going to be answering to God about calling themselves pro-life and then eagerly going off to kill Iraqis in the name of imperialism. Pro-Birth? Absolutely. Pro-Life? Absolutely not.

    And no one ever answered my question about their take on birth control.

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