CHICAGO - President Bush recently went before cameras holding in his arms a month-old baby named Trey Jones. The picture raised a question that supporters of embryonic stem cell research would rather not answer: Would the world be better off if Trey had been killed as an embryo to advance medical research?
That is what would happen to thousands of embryos under the bill passed last week by the House. And it would happen with the approval and help of the federal government. The measure would scrap the policy adopted by Mr. Bush in August 2001, when he agreed to government financing of such research only if it relied on stem cell lines that had already been created.
He drew a clear line: Medical science can exploit the products of embryos that had already been killed, but the federal government would not be an accomplice to studies that require additional killing. It did not prevent researchers from destroying other embryos, if they got their money from someplace besides Washington. But it established the principle that there are some things we should not do, even in the hope of healing.
The House bill would allow federally funded research on embryos created in fertilization clinics that would otherwise be discarded and that are donated by the parents. Never mind that frozen embryos not needed by their parents don't have to be destroyed. They can be implanted in the wombs of willing mothers, as was Trey Jones.
Mr. Bush has promised to veto the bill. But this may not be the last word from Congress: Other bills would not only allow the destruction of "surplus" embryos, but permit cloning of new embryos that would also be destroyed.
Californians voted last year to provide $3 billion in state money to subsidize experimentation on embryos created solely for that purpose. The Massachusetts legislature has sent the governor a bill to allow such "therapeutic cloning."
Supporters of these efforts promise vast benefits if scientists are merely allowed to clone and destroy embryos as they see fit. In the House debate last week, advocates held out hope of curing paralysis, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and other illnesses.
The claims, though, are speculative. David Shaywitz, a stem cell researcher at Harvard University who opposes the existing restrictions, wrote recently in The Washington Post lamenting the "extravagant claims of progress" and noting that "growing these stubborn cells is notoriously difficult."
While advocates extol the possible benefits, it was up to opponents to state in plain terms the cost. The research, said House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, would "kill some in hopes of saving others."
Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research say that opposition to such a promising application of science can only be attributed to dogmatic religious faith, and that Mr. Bush is pandering to the religious right. But you don't have to be a believer to think there is something wrong with destroying human life, however immature.
It is easy to ignore the nature of what are referred to as mere "clumps of cells" or "blastocysts." But all of us are clumps of cells, and all of us were once tiny blastocysts - separate and unique human beings at the earliest stage of life. The research endorsed by the House means ending the lives of some human beings.
Few of us would indulge scientists who proposed to dismember an actual baby, even if doing so were guaranteed to save lives. But we find ways to excuse the dismemberment of embryos that need only nine months to become babies. Convenience trumps conscience.
Those who want to remove existing limits say we could get a lot from embryonic stem cell research. What would we lose? Wait a few years, and Trey Jones might be willing to tell you.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.