The Incoherent Embryophile

Bush’s position on cloning makes no sense.

If you’re thinking about having a child through in vitro fertilization, you might want to check out a cheery, helpful Web site called “Healthfinder.” Make sure you type “” and not “.com” because this “free guide to reliable consumer health and human services” is produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which seems to regard IVF as some sort of human service.

This is odd, since the Bush administration policy on stem-cell research and on human cloning is that embryos consisting of half a dozen cells are humans who deserve the protection of the government from those who would casually produce and discard these innocents for their own selfish ends, such as curing dreadful diseases. Reacting to news of the first cloned human embryo this week, President Bush said: “We should not as a society grow life to destroy it. It’s morally wrong in my opinion.” Taken literally, this would cover raising cattle or even growing wheat. Presumably the president means human life and includes embryos in that category.

Yet the first item on Healthfinder’s list of references about in-vitro is a brisk discussion, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, of how many eggs should be fertilized (producing an embryo), and how many should be implanted, in order to maximize the chance of producing one baby—and no more. Or, to put it another way: How many embryos should you create and kill outside the womb, and how many should you implant and hope all but one die?

The last item on the Healthfinder list is a set of questions to ask in choosing an IVF program. For example, “Do I pay in advance?” And, “Is donor sperm available?” Not recommended as questions to ask are, “Why are you murdering innocent children?” Or, “How can you live with yourself?”

If you’re a federal employee, the government can be even more helpful: It will subsidize your rampage of slaughter. Health insurance programs for federal employees are not required to offer IVF, but they are allowed to, and some do. Aetna U.S. Healthcare, for example, will cover half of your IVF expenses up to a lifetime maximum of $100,000, though only for married couples using their own basic materials (among other restrictions).

President Bush has done nothing to stop or even discourage these various government promotions of in vitro fertilization. In his Aug. 9 TV address on stem-cell research, Bush actually praised IVF as a “process … which helps so many couples conceive children.” Yet the unavoidable assumption built into his policies on the use of embryos in medical research is that in vitro fertilization is deeply evil.

Stem-cell research does not cause the creation or destruction of a single additional embryo. It uses embryos that are routinely discarded as part of IVF. Once a stem-cell line is created, it can be reproduced in the laboratory and requires no embryos at all. So Bush’s ban on federally funded stem-cell research involving embryos destroyed after Aug. 9 will not directly save any embryo’s life. His rationale is that allowing such research implies federal government approval of the creation and destruction of embryos, and thus may encourage it indirectly. Meanwhile, the government encourages and even subsidizes IVF directly, Bush praises it, and has done nothing to stop it.

This is like putting a roadblock on the highway from Baltimore to Philadelphia and claiming that your purpose is to indirectly reduce traffic from Washington to Baltimore. Meanwhile, though, you’re leaving the Washington-to-Baltimore highway wide open. Your concern for Baltimore is logically suspect.The cloning issue is a bit different. Some folks oppose cloning on grounds of where-this-all-might-lead. But Bush’s objection, near as one can tell, is to the destruction of embryos here-and-now. Cloning does involve the creation and destruction of new embryos, not just using surplus embryos from IVF. And since the medical promise of cloning is replacement tissues genetically identical to the person who needs them, creating and destroying embryos would be part of the treatment itself, not just the original research. Even so, the number of embryos involved will never approach the number discarded or lost routinely in IVF.

Sincere embryophiles deserve grudging respect. I can’t follow their logic or share their belief that six microscopic cells equal a human being just because they might become one some day. But if people really believe this, after struggling with the implications, their political passion is rather noble—and unusual in American politics—because it is entirely unselfish. It is about protecting the lives of a group they are not part of and can never join.

But George W. Bush’s ostensible embryophilia is morally incoherent. Despite all the furrowed-brow posturing, which impressed the media, and despite his claims of deep moral struggle, he hasn’t thought very hard. Either that or he isn’t a person whose hard thinking takes him very far. Or he is a cynic who doesn’t really care about either embryos or people awaiting the fruits of stem-cell research. (“And their families,” as we always add in this country when we’re making a cheap bid for popular sentiment.)

It is impossible to imagine any president seriously attempting to prevent or discourage in vitro fertilization. It is too well-established and, as Bush observed, has brought tremendous happiness to too many couples (and—as he did not observe—single folks as well). But as long as Bush leaves IVF uncriticized and unmolested, we need not take seriously his claims of moral seriousness about cloning and stem cells.