Thomas Sutcliffe: Bush won't say it, but he knows the truth

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The Independent Online

Sometime later today the US Senate - barring a very unexpected reversal of voting intentions - will relax the rules on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. This is good news, if you take the view that this particular seam of scientific investigation might prove a mother lode for new cures. But don't bother inhaling to cheer, because President Bush has already announced that he will veto the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act if it passes. In doing so he has, in effect, confirmed that this issue is, for him, a black and white matter.

The Bill President Bush plans to veto would allow experimentation on stem cells resulting from the surplus embryos created by in-vitro fertilisation - and thus, in his view, cross a moral line. His veto won't prevent the surplus embryos being discarded - that happens anyway, but it will ensure they can't be used for any constructive purpose.

In taking this line President Bush is acting only in consistence with his stated beliefs - that the destruction of a human embryo is the same as the destruction of a human life. And this is a view that he shares with a lot of people, including the Catholic Church. When Bush met the Pope in 2001 he was told that the creation and destruction of human embryos solely for research was an evil comparable to infanticide and abortion - and since the Catholic Church opposes in-vitro fertilisation one can't imagine that they would think the surplus embryos created by it do not really count. Only the other day Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo was quoted as saying that Catholic researchers working on embryonic stem cells should be excommunicated, along with doctors who perform abortions. There are, in other words, no shades of grey.

Except, there's something odd, and always has been, about the mismatch between Catholic (and religious) rhetoric on this matter and daily lived behaviour. Because if the use of embryo stem cells really is morally indistinguishable from infanticide, how can the Catholic hierarchy live with itself? Imagine for a moment that a clinic exists where six-year-old children are given lethal injections if their parents come to find them inconvenient. Imagine that this procedure takes place every day - and now imagine that senior churchmen restrict themselves in their opposition to public homilies and a bit of political lobbying. Such a state of affairs would be monstrous. One would expect to find Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor fomenting civil disobedience or chaining himself to railings - and not just him either.

The truth is, though, that killing a six-year-old (or a newborn baby) is not remotely the same as conducting research into a ball of human cells smaller than the fullstop at the end of this sentence. And that, in turn, is subtly different to conducting a late-term abortion or performing one because a child has been raped and impregnated. Dogma does not always find it easy to admit of these intermediate moral shadings, but public actions prove to us that their existence has effectively been acknowledged.

This is true of Mr Bush too - who, in theory at least, must believe that in-vitro fertilisation leads to a daily massacre of the innocents but who in practice does little to prevent it. In his heart - that space cherished by the born-again and the religiously minded - he knows the truth. He just can't bring himself to say it aloud yet.

We all felt the thrill of the opera

The 112th season of the BBC Proms began the other day - and, as is traditional for the televised first night - offered a selection of popular favourites, including the soprano Barbara Frittoli singing extracts from The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. I'm not qualified to pronounce on the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall, but visually it makes a fantastic showcase for the miracle of an operatic voice. At a rough guess, Frittoli's larynx must be about two cubic inches in volume and yet that modest pipe transmitted its vibrations to every portion of the 3.5 million cubic feet of the hall - agitating the air so that everyone felt each curve and thrill. "How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall?" John Lennon asked. One, as long as it has the right vocal cords.

* I was thrilled to read that Ken Livingstone had announced that SUVs would incur a £25 congestion charge - and then mightily cast down to find it would come into force in 2010.

Surely it should be imposed forthwith and simultaneously backdated several years - although since the conspicuous display of one's wealth seems to be the only serious motive for owning one of these bloated ego-wagons, it's quite possible that the move would be counterproductive.

SUV drivers might like the idea that they can squander their money just as recklessly as they squander the planet's resources. Public contumely wouldn't work much better either, given that they clearly don't give a damn for anyone but themselves. Sometimes I think only a potato rammed up the tailpipe would make them think twice. The car's tailpipe, of course.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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