The Great Debate

Aug. 5 – 18, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 28
The Great Debate
A microscopic view shows a colony of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells being studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
By Catholic News Service
SUN photo(s) CNS
Cardinal calls federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research wrong

Taxpayers should not be forced to support the destruction of human embryos through federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, said Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. The cardinal urged federal lawmakers to oppose efforts to include such federal funding in the appropriations bill for the Labor Department and the Health and Human Services Department. “Government has no business forcing taxpayers to support research that relies on the direct destruction of any human life,” he said in a July 7 letter to the appropriations committees in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Embryonic stem-cell research de facto destroys the human embryos. The cardinal said that there is no need to experiment with embryonic stem cells because knowledge of stem cells has advanced through use of morally acceptable adult stem cells, animal stem cells and embryonic stem cells eligible for funding under current Bush administration policy. The Bush policy allows federal funding only of research on stem-cell lines that were in existence as of Aug. 9, 2001. The initial promise of embryonic stem cells “was exaggerated,” Cardinal Keeler said in his letter.

“If there is to be any change in the existing policy, it should be to end this limited funding of embryonic stem-cell research altogether, so that taxpayers’ resources can more effectively be marshaled for research avenues that now appear to be more ethically and medically sound,” said Cardinal Keeler. The cardinal rejected the argument that human embryos that otherwise would be discarded can be used for experiments. “The claim that humans who may soon die automatically become fodder for lethal experiments also has ominous implications for research using condemned prisoners and terminally ill patients,” he said. On the same day as the cardinal’s letter, the results of a Le Moyne College/Zogby International polling project on contemporary Catholic trends were released, showing that an overwhelming majority of Catholics support adult stem-cell research and oppose using embryonic stem cells. The survey reported that 73 percent of Catholics surveyed support adult stem-cell research and 63 percent feel that use of embryonic stem cells is morally wrong. Although fewer than 40 percent of the respondents approved of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, 45 percent said they would accept medical treatment based on embryonic research.

“They’re not that different from the general public whose support overall is stronger” for research using adult stem cells, said Theresa Beaty, chemistry and physics professor at Le Moyne College. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percent.

Speaker Highlights Ethical Problems of Embryonic Stem-Cell Research

Embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning are always unethical because they “create life precisely to destroy it,” a priest told members of the medical, legal and scientific communities at the Catholic Medical Association’s conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. About 160 people, including doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, lawyers, clergy and students, attended the conference May 8 to discuss how they might collaborate on life issues common to their disciplines. Participants heard talks on bioethics, cloning, embryo research, intrauterine medicine and reproductive technologies.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, who has a doctorate in neuroscience and is an associate pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Falmouth, Mass., told participants there is a lot of excitement about the potential for stem-cell therapy to cure diseases, but he cautioned against unethical uses of stem cells that destroy life, such as embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning. “The curing of disease is certainly a very good end, one that the Roman Catholic Church actively and vigorously supports,” he said, “but even very good ends cannot ever justify the use of intrinsically disordered or evil means.” He said that regulations are necessary to protect embryos from exploitation, but that scientific progress has the potential to get out of control. “It basically becomes a steamroller where you say science must go forward. We have to be among the contingent in our society that says we need an informed and intelligent discussion of the science because we know that science can be dangerous,” the priest added. Father Pacholczyk said it is a misconception that embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to become any of the more than 200 types of cells in the body, are more valuable to science than stem cells obtained from adults or umbilical cords. Though adult stem cells are more restricted, or limited in what they are capable of becoming, he said, they are more reliable than embryonic stem cells, which readily form cancerous growths or are rejected by a person’s immune system.

He said adult stem cells, obtained from fat cells, nasal lining, bone marrow, tissues and organs, umbilical cords, placentas and amniotic fluid, have the potential to cure most diseases. The priest noted that those who have not closely followed this debate might think that embryonic stem cells are already giving exciting cures, which he said is “absolutely false.” He said the number of people who have been cured of any disease using stem cells from embryos is “exactly zero” while “literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, or more people have been cured using adult and umbilical cord stem-cell therapies.” Father Pacholczyk cited examples of people who have been cured of heart disease, leukemia, sickle cell anemia and diseases of the central nervous system from adult stem-cell treatments. In one study, people with spinal cord injuries were able to move their limbs slightly after undergoing adult stem-cell treatments and physical therapy. He noted that the debate over the use of embryonic stem cells is just heating up, pointing out that Californians will vote this year on whether to allocate $200 million of state funds every year for the next 10 years to support and promote embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning.

What people need to remember, he added, is that every human being was once an embryo. He said that idea is the “basic foundation and springboard” for a common discussion of bioethics.

Reagan Death Stirs Debate Over Human Embryonic Stem-Cell Research

The death of former President Ronald Reagan after his long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease has rekindled debate over government funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. Under scrutiny is President Bush’s policy, announced Aug. 9, 2001, which allowed funding for those embryonic stem-cell lines already developed but prohibited federal funding for future stem-cell lines. The policy does not prevent private funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Supporters of relaxing current policy — including Reagan’s wife, Nancy — said that such research is needed to develop cures for Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases and conditions.

Opponents of human embryonic stem-cell research, such as the U.S. bishops, argue that such research involves the destruction of human life and that alternative research is available using adult stem cells.

On June 14 the Bush administration rejected the calls to change the policy. “The president came up with a policy that will allow us to explore the promise of stem-cell research, and do so in a way that doesn’t cross a certain moral threshold,” said Scott McClellan, White House spokesman. Nancy Reagan reignited the debate about a month before her husband’s death when she spoke in favor of human embryonic stem-cell research at a biomedical gathering in Los Angeles. After Ronald Reagan’s June 5 death, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, endorsed Nancy Reagan’s position and asked Bush to soften his policy on funding human embryonic stem-cell research. “I know there are ethical issues, but people of good will and good sense can resolve them,” Kerry said in a June 13 radio address. Kerry also was one of 58 senators who signed a letter to Bush a few days earlier that asked for a relaxed policy. Among the signers were more than a dozen Republicans, several of whom oppose abortion. “We would very much like to work with you to modify the current embryonic stem-cell policy,” said the letter.

A similar letter was sent to Bush in April by 200 members of the House of Representatives. The House letter was immediately criticized by Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “Besides demonstrating a lack of respect for developing human life, that letter also relies on demonstrably false factual claims,” said Doerflinger in a letter to House members released April 29. Doerflinger added that human embryonic stem-cell lines “may develop genetic abnormalities” thus “preventing their use in humans for the foreseeable future.” U.S. patients have limited access to some new treatments “in part because the U.S. fixation on embryo research has let other countries take the lead in groundbreaking adult cell therapies” for juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injury and cardiac repair, he said. Although Reagan’s struggle with Alzheimer’s is being used to lobby Bush to relax government restrictions, it is questionable whether Reagan, who championed pro-life causes during his 1981-89 presidency, would have favored government funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. The 40th U.S. president supported the concept that human life begins at fertilization and favored legislation that would have granted constitutional rights to unborn human beings. William Clark, national security adviser and secretary of the interior under Reagan, said Reagan “consistently opposed federal support for the destruction of innocent human life.” Reagan “began a de facto ban on federal financing of embryo research that he held to throughout his presidency,” wrote Clark in an opinion piece published June 11 in The New York Times. “I have no doubt that he would have urged our nation to look to adult stem-cell research — which has yielded many clinical successes — and away from the destruction of developing human lives, which has yielded none,” wrote Clark.

Stem-Cell Research Initiative Qualifies for California Ballot

After a hard-fought battle between pro-life advocates and backers of embryonic stem-cell research, the “California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act” initiative has qualified for the Nov. 2 ballot in California. The initiative, which is vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church, would create a taxpayer-funded institute to support embryonic stem-cell research “for the development of life-saving regenerative medical treatments and cures.” Proponents of the initiative say that embryonic stem cells hold the promise of new treatments or cures for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, HIV/AIDS and more than 70 other diseases and conditions.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan, who watched President Reagan suffer from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, has become a vocal advocate of such research. She said it “may provide our scientists with answers that have long been beyond our grasp.” But opponents of the measure say that the groups in favor of the bill are obscuring the real meaning of the legislation with overly scientific and misleading wording. “The group promoting the initiative uses misleading ‘facts’ and neglects to mention embryos or embryonic stem cells or cloning other than ‘reproductive’ cloning,” noted a statement from the California Catholic Conference. “That may be because the initiative itself does not mention those words, but instead uses ‘progenitor cells’ to identify embryos and ‘somatic cell nuclear transfer’ to describe cloning when the cloned embryo will be destroyed for research.” “The law is devious and deceptive; it states that no reproductive cloning will be allowed because they know that the majority of Californians are against cloning,” explained Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a physician who is a stem-cell researcher and clinical professor at the University of Southern California. “But the law allows therapeutic cloning using the term ‘somatic cell transfer’ which is, by definition, cloning.”

Reproductive cloning produces a human baby while therapeutic cloning “kills the embryo before it is born,” Fortanasce told The Tidings, newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The Catholic Church does not oppose scientific research on adult stem cells or cells from the blood of umbilical cords because the donor of the stem cells is not destroyed. The church objects to the use of embryonic stem cells or cloned cells because the donor embryo or clone is destroyed by extracting the stem cells; this contradicts the church’s pro-life teaching. In April the California bishops voted to oppose the initiative. They cited the 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), in which Pope John Paul II wrote: “Human life is sacred and inviolable at every moment of existence, including the initial phase, which precedes birth.” The problems with the bill stem from more than just moral issues, noted Fortanasce. “The bill will simply line the pockets of the biotech industries while taking money out of the taxpayers’ hands with little oversight,” he said. “The biotech companies and large research institutions will control the share of the money while smaller institutions, like the City of Hope and Cedars Sinai Medical Center, who have done good research with adult stem cells, will see little of the funds.”

The measure calls for more than $3 billion in taxpayer-funded bonds over a 10-year period to be distributed according to a 29-member citizen oversight commission appointed by the governor and top Sacramento lawmakers. Priority would be given to stem-cell research, such as therapeutic cloning, that is not likely to qualify for federal funding. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not yet taken a stand on the measure.

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