in Washington - With the clock running down on the Clinton administration, the president is scrambling to secure his legacy with executive orders and regulatory changes that could shape the nation for years to come. One of those changes came on Aug. 23, when the National Institutes of Health announced that for the first time, it would offer federal funding for stem-cell research, a branch of medical science that requires the destruction of human embryos. President Clinton insisted that the scientific promise of stem-cell research was "breathtaking" and added, "I think we cannot walk away from the potential to save and improve lives." Critics also caught their breath when the new guidelines were unveiled, but for very different reasons. "Once the NIH has crossed the line and decided to treat living embryos as something less than human beings, then anything goes," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. The NIH plan, he said, "proposes for the federal government to arrange for killing members of the human family." That line of argument may be a tough sell for pro-lifers. No heart-rending photos of thumb-sucking unborn children will help sway the emotions in this particular battle. The embryos in question are very young-only a week old-and about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. At that point in development, the cells are largely an undifferentiated mass-that is, they have not yet begun to divide and change into brain cells, blood cells, and other parts of the body. Instead, these so-called embryonic "stem cells" have the potential to become any type of cell, if only scientists could prod them in the desired direction. That potential makes stem cells a sort of medical magic wand. Scientists believe they could use the cells to create new, healthy organs and tissues for patients ravaged by disease or injury. Alzheimer's patients could receive new brain cells; diabetics could receive new pancreas cells; and so forth. Damaged or defective body parts could literally be made new again, extending their useful life indefinitely. But only if human embryos are dismembered to harvest the precious stem cells. That's been rare since 1996, when a bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) forbade federal funding of "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death." Since 90 percent of all such research is funded by the federal government, experimentation has been limited to only a handful of private labs that take no federal funds. The new NIH guidelines aim to skirt the funding ban by parsing the language of the law in a way that would make Mr. Clinton himself proud. Recipients of federal funds still will not be allowed to dissect the embryos themselves, but can now acquire stem cells from private labs that have already done the dirty work. Pro-lifers were outraged, and Mr. Dickey insisted the NIH was violating both the spirit and the letter of his law. "It's the same thing [the administration] has done through EPA and OSHA and other executive agencies," he told WORLD. "The problem this time is that it's a matter of life and death and the conscience of our nation, and that makes it even worse than those other usurpations of congressional authority." Mr. Dickey vows he will either hit back at NIH through the appropriations process or sue the agency once it actually moves to award its first grant under the new guidelines. If the legal status of stem-cell research remains murky, the ethical debate is even more so. Under the NIH rules, embryos cannot be created specifically for medical research. Instead, they can only be donated-not sold-by couples who created the embryos as part of the in vitro fertilization process. In that process, three to five embryos are implanted at a time, but many more are created, due to the odds against pregnancy. Those "extra" embryos are frozen until the woman becomes pregnant or decides she no longer needs them, at which point they are destroyed. By limiting testing to embryos already destined for destruction, the NIH has created a powerful argument in its favor. "Is it more ethical for a woman to donate unused embryos that will never become human beings or to let them be tossed away as so much garbage when they could help save thousands of lives?" actor Christopher Reeve, a victim of spinal cord injury, asked during congressional testimony earlier this year. But, given the excitement over stem-cell research, few believe that such limited trials will last very long. Once quality-of-life becomes an accepted excuse for dismembering embryos, the demand for broader experimentation will be almost impossible to resist. Some scientists, for example, are already arguing that patients should be allowed to create their own embryos for dissection, because tissues created from one's own stem cells are less likely to be rejected when reintroduced into the body. The threat of such a slippery slope is leading to questions from some unlikely quarters. Stuart Newman is a pro-abortion developmental biologist at New York Medical College who is disturbed by what he sees as the commercialization of human life: "If we deliberately produce embryos for utilitarian purposes, then there is really almost no boundary beyond that." Pro-lifers couldn't have said it better.