IT WAS HEARTENING to see Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) take the issue of stem cell research a moderate step forward, even if his reasons for doing so displayed his inner struggle between what the doctor knows to be true and what the politician senses to be helpful.
Frist gave in to the latter a few months ago. Quite ridiculously, he relied upon his background as a transplant surgeon to dispute the findings of Terri Schiavo's doctors, giving his diagnosis-by-video that the brain-damaged woman was not in a persistent vegetative state. This may have been the low point of Frist's medical career, but it was part of a strategy to curry favor with social conservatives who play an important role in presidential primaries.
Frist was on firmer ground last week as he supported a bill that would allow federal funding for expanded stem cell research. His background, as he noted, has given him considerable experience in the difficult medical questions of when life ends, and these questions are resolved not by ideology but by thoughtful discussion within an "ethical construct."
Frist then tried, with only partial success, to steer a course for himself within such a construct. He still believes absolutely that life begins at conception, he said, but the potential of stem cell research to save lives and ease human suffering "deserves our increased energy and focus." The stem cell lines now approved for funding are contaminated and probably unusable for creating therapies.
Frist's observations are illogical: If the embryo is human life, destroying it isn't acceptable no matter how promising the potential for cures. But Frist's position makes sense politically; he is acknowledging that medical ethics must balance science with moral belief. Just as government cannot ride roughshod over people's faiths, religious conviction should not cast ironclad walls in front of science.
The bill that Frist now supports still withholds funding from the most promising research, which involves creating and destroying early stage embryos (California's stem cell initiative allows funding for such research). But it is a step toward a better balance. At least Frist isn't repeating his mistake in the Schiavo case: making uninformed and inaccurate medical pronouncements in an effort to give pseudoscientific backing to unfounded political tirades. Life is complicated enough as it is.