Embryonic Stem Cells and Clear Moral Boundaries

06/22/2007 05:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A study published in this week's online edition of the journal Science finds that a majority of couples (62 percent) with stored embryos from fertility treatments say they'd be willing to donate their surplus for stem cell research. The very people with heavy emotional and financial investments in these embryos, the very people who may have seen other embryos from the same "batches" develop into their darling, beloved children, support using them for research, particularly of the stem cell variety. These embryos could provide thousands of new stem cell lines for study, a supply that is sorely needed, despite President Bush's arguments to the contrary.

Most folks prefer the idea of using spare embryos for research over donating them to other, infertile couples for a shot at life. It's hard for them to get over the idea that their children's full genetic siblings would be raised by somebody else. And many of them, having profited so mightily from science, feel that donating their embryos is a sort of giving back.

But just this Wednesday, President Bush vetoed, for the second time, a bill that would allow federal funding for medical research using embryonic stem cells, arguing, simply, that it is immoral. "I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line," he said. If only he'd viewed Iraq's border as a similarly distinct boundary. But I digress.

As a person who is sitting, along with her husband, on seven frozen embryos, I understand how sticky a situation this is. While I once viewed embryos as mere biomedical matter, believing I'd have no problem donating them to science, I am now less sure. I understand, now, that they are potential potential people, and I understand that my three IVF-enabled children once existed at precisely this cellular stage (as did we all). But I never could have imagined the current administration's hostility to what is a majority belief -- that it is far more ethical to donate unused and unwanted embryos to science than to destroy them.

"Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical -- and it is not the only option before us," Bush said. But these embryos weren't created to serve as medical raw material. They weren't farm-raised or developed to serve any purpose beyond personhood. They are an unintended remainder from infertility treatments, treatments that are fully legal and even, in some cases, condoned by the religious leaders who view scientific research using leftover embryos as abhorrent and sinful.

There are so many of us who've been through IVF and have leftover embryos to show for it, embryos we don't know what to do with. In fact, there are over 40,000 of these frozen embryos in tanks at fertility clinics around the country. And while a very good argument could be made about the ideal of using every embryo for a potential pregnancy, that just isn't realistic. And it is inconceivable that, in his fundamentalism and its concomitant stubbornness, President Bush is forcing a sort of Sophie's Choice upon people who truly value life but, for one reason or another, don't want more children, forcing us to either wait out his presidency, or put an end to the uncertainty, and storage fees, and either use our embryos ourselves, donate them to another, infertile couple, or throw them out.

So, for now, with President Bush dead set on tamping the flow across this moral line, I'll keep on agonizing over the eventual fate of our embryos, wondering whether there'll be a breakthrough in finding cures for debilitating diseases without the benefit of these stockpiles of magnificent and inadvertent resources. I'll also continue to wonder how some boundaries are so darn clear to President Bush and others, like the one defining Angela Merkel's physical space, are not. But, again, I digress.