WASHINGTON — After heaven and Earth, fruit and fowl, cattle and every creeping thing, the book of Genesis turns its attention to the creation of man. "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground," it says, "and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life."
On Wednesday, in a chamber known more for cutthroat battles over the laws of the workaday world, U.S. senators turned to that biblical passage for guidance on whether a human embryo is equivalent to a human life and whether it may be destroyed for its stem cells.
"We all agree that the embryo is alive," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) told a Senate panel. "The question is, is it a life?"
The theological debate, which also drew on a parable from the book of Matthew, came as pressure grows for President Bush to decide quickly on whether to allow federal funding for medical research using stem cells from embryos. Many scientists believe the cells hold the key to new treatments for disease, but anti-abortion groups say the research is a form of murder, as embryos must be destroyed in order to harvest their stem cells.
An influential advisor to Bush on Wednesday became the latest of about 70 senators to support the research. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician and abortion opponent, said the research can be done ethically if it is strictly regulated.
For lawmakers who oppose abortion, embryo cell research has raised particularly thorny moral questions. Many have long believed that life begins at conception, which would imply that destroying a human embryo is destroying a human life.
But Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), an abortion opponent who supports the research, guided a panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee to Genesis, Chapter 2, Verse 7, on Wednesday.
After reading the passage, Smith said it describes a "two-step process" for creating humans: First, God formed man from the dust of the ground. Then, the verse says, God breathed into man's nostrils "the breath of life; and man became a living soul."
Cells, Smith said, are like the dust of the earth, giving form to man but not "the breath of life." To gain that spirit, he said, the cells must be placed in a womb.
Seen this way, embryo cell research can be conducted without destroying a living human because the embryos taken for federally funded experiments would never have lived in the womb. Instead, they would be donated by fertility patients who had created embryos in the laboratory as part of the process of becoming pregnant.
Hundreds and possibly thousands of "spare" embryos are discarded each year by fertility patients who had created more than they needed. Some lawmakers say it is more ethical to use these embryos to help patients than to let them go to waste. And Smith, a Mormon, argued that these lab-created embryos are not equivalent to a person anyway.
"I believe that life begins in a mother's womb, not in a scientist's laboratory," said Smith.
A representative of the Catholic church criticized Smith's interpretation as "amateur theology."
Richard Doerflinger, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called it "absurd" to think that the womb conveys the "breath of life" to an embryo. "An embryo's development is directed completely from within--the womb simply provides a nurturing environment." If scientists created an artificial womb, he asked, would a child born from it not be human? Could it be killed for any purpose?
Stem cells have drawn wide interest because they are able to grow into any cell or tissue of the body, raising hopes that they can replace faulty tissues in patients. One possible application is in Parkinson's disease, which claimed Smith's grandmother, an uncle and a cousin, Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.).
Michael West, chief executive of Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a Massachusetts company working with stem cells, said research is ethical on embryos up to two weeks of age. At about 14 days, he said, the embryo produces the beginning of a backbone. Until that point, the embryo can divide in two--producing identical twins--or two embryos can merge into one.
"This is a line that nature has drawn for us," West said. It would be illogical, he said, to treat an embryo as an individual if it could still become two people. When the British Parliament this year authorized stem cell research, it said experiments could be done on embryos up to 14 days old.
Some theologians, including a small minority of Catholic philosophers, have also backed the idea that an embryo younger than 14 days cannot be a person. They reason that the soul, the hallmark of an individual, cannot enter an embryo capable of dividing in two.
Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon, drew on the ethics of organ donation to explain how he reconciles his opposition to abortion with his support for research that destroys embryos.