Potential is a fantastic concept. It drives a large portion of our actions, weighing the possibly benefits and consequences before making a decision.

Those in favor of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) constantly cite potential as the reason to push past any ethical qualms. However, those opposed to ESCR may also appeal to potential both in the negative consequences of federally funding ESCR and the positive benefits to establishing the personhood of the human embryo.

Yes, ESCR does have the potential to cure diseases, cause the lame to walk again, bring the dead back to life and become a modern-day messiah. However this potential only places ESCR in a long line of potential cures, some of which materialize, some of which do not. Most end up bringing some benefit to humanity, but dramatically less than originally promised. From alchemy to bloodletting to antibiotics to gene therapy, all have had varying degrees of success and none have brought the eradication of suffering and diseases hyped by various promoters.

The jury is still out on the ultimate success of gene therapy and even to some extent, antibiotics, but it is clear that much of what medical researchers promise and the time frame in which they make these promises are repeatedly exaggerated. It should be safe to say that those pushing ESCR on the public are following in the established tradition of medical research – promote potential.

It is difficult to argue with potential. How can you debate someone that says ESCR will cure virtually every disease, when no human testing on ESCR has been conducted? Is it possible to reason with someone who claims that the crippled would walk if only President Bush would allow federal funding of ESCR?

While potential is the selling point for ESCR, it is also the dark side of the issue for supporters. If proponents can claim, with only one success in animal testing in 20 years, that ESCR holds the future for millions of Americans afflicted with diseases and hampered by spinal injuries, can detractors not point to the possible negative consequences?

Recently we have witnessed politicians so enamored with ESCR that they killed a bill supporting adult stem cell research. What possible motive could someone have for not supporting ASCR. Currently the FDA has 1,181 clinical trials in some phase (574 are recruiting participants) involving stem cells – everyone involves adult stem cells. Still much of ASCR lies in the land of potential, as well, though not with the accompanying media blitz.

This debate cannot help but be framed in the context of potential. Much is also made of the potential connection between ESCR and in vitro fertilization (IVF). While, many similarities do exists and can aid the current discussion, there are significant distinctions between the two.

ESCR automatically involves the destruction of embryos, which differs from IVF where embryo destruction is not the foregone by-product. It can be a consequence, which is one of the reasons why the vast majority of couples using IVF ask that their embryos be frozen instead of opened up for research.

One surprising similarity is that most skeptics support the government treating ESCR as it does IVF. Because of the controversial issue of embryo destruction surrounding IVF, the federal government, through administrations of both parties, has refused to use federal funding in IVF research and treatment. Instead of the proported hypocrisy, President Bush was actually being consistent with the government’s stance on ESCR and the continued position on IVF.

When President Bush signed his first veto, he did so surrounded with so-called “snowflake babies,” children who were adopted as embryos and have since become recognized by everyone involved in the current debate as an actual “person.”

“These boys and girls are not spare parts,” Bush said. “They remind us of what is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of research. They remind us that we all begin our lives as a small collection of cells. And they remind us that in our zeal for new treatments and cures, America must never abandon our fundamental morals.”

A recent bumper sticker reminded me of this line of thinking. It read, “As a former fetus, I am against abortion.” The same sentiment could apply to ESCR. We are all not just former fetuses, but former embryos. It is sad to think that someone could refuse to regard themselves as a person at some stage during their development.

In defending Bush’s veto, Investor’s Business Daily, made the best point yet about potential: “One of these days, researchers will find cures for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and disabilities such as spinal cord injuries. And maybe some of the researchers will be snowflake babies.”

I see much more potential in an embryo that is allowed to develop as a human being, instead of an embryo that is destroyed for research sake. While President Bush and others against ESCR may have limited the potential cures brought about through research, embryonic stem cell research completely destroys the potential impact that person could have made on society.

So the question is returned to the proponents: which do you value more, which holds more potential – a destroyed “clump of cells” or a snowflake baby?