Topic: Government & Politics

Senator Bill Frist
(August 2005)

To be sure, Senator Bill Frist is an unlikely Ethics Hero, especially since the Senate Majority Leader charged into Ethics Dunce territory with his involvement in the Terri Schiavo controversy. But his recent decision to shift positions on stem cell research despite its likely impact on his chances of a successful run at the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 appears to be that rarity on Capitol Hill, an action based on principle rather than expediency.

Stem cell research uses cells from excess frozen embryos, theoretically potential human life but in a permanently dormant state. The ethical controversy arises from the arguments of moral absolutists who insist that killing such frozen embryos is no different from aborting a third trimester embryo, taking out Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, or shooting Winona Ryder: it’s the taking of a human life, and no matter what the benefits to science and medicine (for stem cell research holds great promise for the eventual cure of many diseases), it cannot be permitted.

The other side of the dispute relies on a utilitarian analysis. A warehoused embryo that will never grow or develop into a human being is at or near the bottom rung of human life, and using such an embryo for research that may benefit thousands or even millions of people passes an ethical balancing test. It is not a trivial dispute, because a genuinely frightening slippery slope lies dead ahead: the prospect of scientists creating human embryos that exist only to be experimented on, one more step to the world of the summer movie sci-fi bomb “The Island,” in which society creates unsuspecting human clones purely to be available for future organ transplants. The anti-stem cell research argument is an ethically legitimate one, and attention must be paid.

But the pro-stem cell research argument is also a strong one, and Frist, who is a doctor, apparently thought hard about the important competing interests being balanced. The Senator concluded that the lives of millions of suffering human beings outweigh the technical claim to humanity shared by thousands of frozen embryos that will never see the inside of a womb. He then publicly changed his position, bucking both President Bush and Frist’s core conservative constituency. It was a courageous act.

There is certainly room for cynicism here. Frist could be calculating the angles, and reasoning that his most conservative supporters will forgive him this one transgression, while his new stance will attract critical support from moderates and the media. After all, he is a politician, and sadly, that’s the way most politicians think. But The Ethics Scoreboard has no evidence that this is the case with Frist in this instance, and an ethics website should try to avoid being cynical as much as possible. Senator Frist has earned the right to be called an Ethics Hero.

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