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Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2002

Last week, the Associated Press reported that the Bush Administration will soon distribute almost a million dollars for public awareness campaigns promoting "embryo adoption." Embryo adoption occurs when couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) produce too many embryos and decide to donate the extras to other infertile couples.

If a couple does not donate or hold onto its excess embryos, they are either destroyed or used in stem cell research. Under guidelines announced by Bush in a speech last August, however, federal funding will not go to support organizations doing research with embryonic stem cells (unless the cells were developed prior to August 9, 2001, the date of Bush's speech).

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was reportedly responsible for inserting the little-noticed grant provision in a Health & Human Services (HHS) spending bill. Though Senator Specter supports stem cell research, he asserts that it should occur only if the biological parents prefer not to give up their embryos for adoption by other couples. The better alternative, according to Specter, is to "try to find people who will adopt embryos and take the necessary steps on implanting them in a woman to produce life."

President Bush's Unprincipled Position on Stem Cell Research

President Bush's opposition to most stem cell research, he has explained, stems from the belief that a person exists from the moment of conception. As I argued in an earlier column, Bush's position lacks moral coherence.

First, if an embryo is a person, then its parents should not be able to choose between keeping it, discarding it, donating it to research, and giving it to another family. Biological mothers and fathers of real children must either keep them or give them up for adoption.

Second, the entire practice of in vitro fertilization - a practice on which both stem cell research and embryo adoption are parasitic - is hostile to the personhood of embryonic life. IVF involves the knowing creation of thousands of embryos that will never be implanted and that will ultimately be destroyed.

From Whence Stems Senator Specter's Position?

Like Bush, Senator Specter expresses no opposition to fertility medicine. Unlike Bush, however, Specter also has no problem with stem cell research, though he apparently thinks that it should remain a last resort. In the context of advocating embryo adoption, he reportedly says that "[i]f any of those embryos could produce life, I think they ought to produce life."

Given Specter's view that an embryo is not a person entitled to life, it is hard to know what to make of his assertion. Perhaps he believes that raw materials ought to be used to support life whenever possible. That could explain a preference for embryo donation over embryo disposal, for example. But it does not explain why he would favor embryo adoption over stem cell research.

After all, the use of stem cells for research also sustains life. People who might otherwise have suffered and died of diseases such as Alzheimer's could potentially live longer and more comfortable lives through the use of embryonic stem cells. Why should this prospect strike the Senator as less worthy than implantation?

One possibility is that Senator Specter and others who support the HHS grant provision believe that when it comes to human beings, more is better. If raw materials can be used to create additional people, in other words, then that's how they ought to be used.

Every Sperm Is Sacred

If this population expansion principle is the basis for Specter's view, it is fair to ask: why stop at embryos? Though fertility clinics sometimes implant a donated embryo, for instance, they regularly inseminate patients with donated sperm. Perhaps the federal government should therefore encourage people to give up more of their sperm for "adoption" as well.

The Red Cross could receive a special grant for adding sperm drives to its regular blood drives. Instead of wastefully masturbating at home, men could contribute to the important project of producing as many human beings as possible.

And couples - gay and straight - planning to discard their used condoms could instead rush the bags of life over to grant-receiving fertility clinics. With the right incentives, we could probably add another billion people to the planet in less than three decades.

It is hard to imagine a groundswell of support for such a grant program. We are not likely, for example, to hear Arlen Specter saying any time soon that "if any of the sperm expelled every day could produce life, I think they ought to produce life," as he said of embryos.

When viewed from this perspective, the adopt-an-embryo program might even seem amusing, although I know it will not amuse my pro-life readers, and for that, I apologize. If one were truly pro-life, of course, Specter's position would be offensive as well, because it accepts the use of in vitro fertilization as well as a couple's prerogative to discard or use any excess embryos.

But for anyone who rejects the notion that an embryo is a person with human rights, the promotion of embryo adoption reflects something very ugly and not especially amusing about our nation's priorities. It shows a willingness to waste money, even a relatively small quantity like a million dollars, at a time when Americans are being asked to tighten their belts and forego such luxuries as prescription drug coverage and housing for the poor.

There is independently good reason, moreover, to question a program intended to increase the population, when we have thus far done such an inadequate job of providing for those people who are already here.

The Costs to Real Children

A federal program promoting embryo adoption has one final disturbing implication. It encourages people who might otherwise adopt a real child - an already-existing person who waits hopefully for a loving home - to implant a donated embryo instead.

Though every person has a right to decide how to build her own family, the government has no business putting a thumb on the scale against adoption. Supporters of a grant that encourages families to adopt an embryo instead of a child must therefore answer to the thousands of babies and children awaiting permanent families in orphanages and foster homes in the United States and around the world, while our government embraces the six-cell embryo.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark.

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