In his decision to approve federally funded research on certain categories of stem cells, President Bush, by executive decision, appears to have set the nation on a new path toward defining when life begins.
The president's immediate goal, clearly, was to draw a line on the use of federal funds. He noted in his speech to the nation that more than 60 "lines" of stem cells have already been extracted from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. Funding would be limited to those.
But Mr. Bush's criteria for selecting which stem cells are suitable for research warrant a closer look. They are: (1) they must already exist; and (2) "the life and death decision has already been made" not to let them become human beings.
This Bush standard relies, at least partially, on a decision having been made, usually by a couple, not to use the embryos for in vitro fertilization. This yardstick for federal stem-cell research seems to rest not just on the potential for life in a material embryo, but also on prior conscious decisions about whether to bring forth human life.
This government policy could provide a perspective for deciding many ethical issues posed by science and medicine, such as those arising from cloning or euthanasia.
If, in effect, human life begins by human intention, which Bush's decision indicates, then that recognition should point this debate away from viewing human beings merely as assemblies of biological components and toward the recognition of fundamental elements of motivation and character - elements like love that are spiritual and timeless.
Humans, ideally and in most cases, perpetuate themselves primarily out of a love between a man and woman, with that love directed at creating new life. Such love nurtures life, from marriage to conception to birth to raising a child.
Embryos represent, in material terms, just one step of that nurturing process; they require the mental action of a couple, leading to the union of male and female genes, and then they need a womb to grow. From there, a child needs the nurturing environment of a home to grow into an adult, and the process begins again.
Does life, then, ever really have a discrete beginning? In material terms, life appears to have points at which it can begin and end. From that perspective, the desire to use stem cells to correct human ills, as Bush emphasizes, deserves this limited support. But the nurturing love that provides the foundation of meaningful human life is never restricted.
Tapping into those higher qualities of thought is what lies behind an increasing public interest in prayer and spirituality to heal human ills. Such an interest does not preempt or put aside legitimate and thoughtful efforts in laboratories.
The president, who conducted weeks of discussions with leading thinkers before making his decision, has drawn a critical distinction that should help form this evolving debate, perhaps well beyond his time in office. He has set up a bioethics council to deal with the issues raised by such medical innovation.
Congress, if it tries to change the Bush standard, ought to look beyond the material aspects or prospective medical benefits of this research. It should realize that, with these issues, government is involved in defining the deeper meanings of life. That role demands quiet thought and prayer, broad and calm discussion, and an appeal to conscience by every elected leader.