Not terribly pro-life, is it Mr President?

IN AUGUST 2001, George Bush told Americans he worried about "a culture that devalues life", and that he believed, as president of the United States, he had "an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world".

That belief lay behind Bush's denial of federal government funds for stem-cell research that could encourage the destruction of human embryos. Although his administration acknowledged that some scientists believe stem-cell research could offer new ways of treating diseases that affect 128 million Americans, this prospect evidently did not, in Bush's view, justify destroying human embryos.

Last month, the military forces that this same president commands aimed a missile at a house in Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border. Eighteen people were killed, including five children. The target of the attack, al-Qaeda's No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was not among the dead, although lesser figures in the terrorist organisation reportedly were. Bush did not apologise for the attack, nor did he reprimand those who ordered it. Apparently, he believes that the chance of killing an important terrorist leader is sufficient justification for firing a missile that will almost certainly kill innocent human beings.

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Other American politicians took the same stance. Trent Lott, a conservative Republican senator - and a prominent opponent of abortion - said of the attack: "Absolutely, we should do it." Senator John McCain, another leading Republican, though one often ready to disagree with Bush, expressed regret for the civilian deaths, but added: "I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again."

Indeed, it would be hard for the current administration to say that it wouldn't do the same thing again, because it has done it many times before. On 1 November, 2001, US planes bombed Ishaq Suleiman, a group of mud huts, because a Taleban lorry had been parked in one of the streets. The lorry left before the bomb hit, but 12 local villagers were killed and 14 were injured. There are many more such stories of innocent lives being lost in the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

This consistent pattern of readiness to inflict civilian casualties - often when striking targets that are not of vital military significance - suggests that Bush and other pro-life American leaders have less concern for the lives of innocent human beings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, than they have for human embryos. This is a bizarre set of priorities. No parents grieve for a lost embryo in the way that they would grieve over the death of a child. No embryos are capable of suffering, or have hopes or desires for the future that are abruptly cut off by their death.

It might be possible to justify the loss of innocent human life in Damadola by a utilitarian calculation that killing al-Qaeda's leaders will, in the long run, save a larger number of innocent human beings. After all, if they remain at large, they may succeed in carrying out further terrorist attacks that take hundreds or even thousands of innocent lives. Bush, however, cannot rely on that argument, for it is precisely the kind of justification that he rejects when it comes to destroying embryos in order to save, in the long run, those dying from diseases for which we currently have no cure.

Other moralists will say that the difference between destroying embryos for research purposes and killing civilians in military attacks is that the former is deliberate killing, whereas the latter deaths are "collateral damage" - unintended, if foreseeable, side-effects of a justifiable act of war.

A culture that allows - and even endorses - such tactics is not one that is genuinely committed to encouraging respect for life. We can be quite sure US forces would not have acted in the same way if the civilians nearby had been other Americans.

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University in New Jersey. His books include Writings on an Ethical Life and One World.