WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wasted little time in fulfilling her campaign pledge to put human embryos squarely in the Democrats’ Congressional crosshairs.
On Jan. 11, the new Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted 253-174 in favor of a bill that would allow federal funding of research using stem cells obtained by killing so-called “surplus” embryos created by in vitro fertilization.
But just before Congressional Democrats launched their bid to overturn the ban President Bush instituted in 2001 on federal funding of embryo-killing stem-cell research, a scientific breakthrough was announced that could short-circuit the case for that research.
Microbiology and embryology show that a human embryo, from conception to eight weeks, is a boy or a girl with his or her own unique DNA and normal human life expectancy. The Church teaches that “from the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person, among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (Catechism 2270).
In an article published online Jan. 7 in Nature Biotechnology, a team of researchers based at Harvard and Wake Forest announced that stem cells obtained from amniotic fluid have abilities similar to embryonic stem cells.
Like embryonic stem cells, the amniotic cells have a “pluripotent” capacity to transform themselves into various human cell types, according to the new research.
But unlike embryonic stem-cell research, they don’t require the killing of an embryo before they can be utilized. And they appear to have another key advantage: The tissues they generate are not prone to developing tumors, unlike tissues derived from embryonic stem cells, the Harvard-Wake Forest researchers said.
“It reminds us of what’s happening very commonly now in the arena of stem-cell research,” said Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “A number of very viable-looking alternatives to the destruction of embryos are presenting themselves, and are gaining research momentum as time goes on.”
One of the researchers involved in the amniotic stem-cell study said that the U.S. scientific establishment is so committed to embryonic stem-cell research that it is resistant to other approaches.
“It took seven years to get our paper published … it was rejected four times,” Italian scientist Paolo De Coppi told the Ansa news service. “We had the impression that many of the criticisms raised [in rejecting the paper] were motivated by a resistance to the idea of finding an alternative to embryonic stem cells because the American scientific community fears restrictions on research with embryos.”
The announcement of the amniotic stem-cell research did not prevent House passage of H.R. 3, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007.
But according to Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., media coverage of the amniotic breakthrough helped cement the pro-life vote against the bill, ensuring it fell short of the 290 votes it will need to override a presidential veto.
Bush vetoed a similar bill last July and has promised to veto this one if it is passed by the Senate.
“I think the weekend revelation about amniotic fluid-derived stem cells … was really a breakthrough for our side,” Smith said. “Because we’re all for regenerative medicine and for the use of stem cells, but just not for the use of stem cells that require the killing of the human embryo.”
Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of a unique human being in an attempt to obtain cells that might cure various diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly but has not produced a cure.
Adult stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the destruction of human life. It has proven successful in treating different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Even advocates of embryonic stem-cell research concede that adult stem cells are far ahead in terms of delivering cures.
Medical journals have shown that more than 70 conditions have benefitted from adult stem cells. “The companies that will emerge first in the stem-cell arena will be those using adult stem cells,” Christopher Scott, executive director of the Program on Stem Cells in Society at Stanford University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics, told Bloomberg News Jan. 9.
However, in an interview with the Register, Scott insisted that embryonic stem-cell research remains essential. He said that it was too early to expect cures from research on human embryos, as such research has only been undertaken for a few years, whereas adult stem-cell research has been under way for decades.
Scott cited the pluripotent capacity of embryonic stem cells to create all of the human body’s 230 different cell types as a key justification for research. He said that it is “unlikely” that this capacity can be matched fully by amniotic cells.
And according to Scott, embryonic research is also necessary to learn how to utilize adult stem cells more effectively.
“It’s very important not to throttle one area of research, because what will happen if that goes forward is that the other parts of stem-cell research will suffer,” Scott said.
Father Pacholczyk counters that while it may be true some important scientific advances could result eventually from research with stem cells derived from human embryos, it is becoming clear that similar advances can be obtained through morally acceptable means.
And even if unique scientific data might be obtained only through embryo-killing research, that’s never a justification for killing a human being, Father Pacholczyk stressed.
“If it was possible to learn more about techniques of organ extraction by removing organs from living patients without their consent, that could never be justified, no matter how wonderful and how helpful that knowledge might be,” said Father Pacholczyk, who earned a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and conducted post-doctoral research at Harvard Medical School before entering the priesthood. “In other words, there are certain ethical boundaries that exist as absolutes and may not be transgressed even if it might appear that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference strongly opposes federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, addressed the issue in a Jan. 9 letter asking members of Congress to vote against the House bill.
“In considering your vote on H.R. 3, then, I urge you first to consider the fundamental moral line Congress would cross if it approves this legislation,” Cardinal Rigali said in the letter. “The federal government has never taken the crass utilitarian approach of forcing taxpayers to support the direct killing of innocent human life, at any stage of development, in the name of ‘progress.’”
Added Cardinal Rigali, “Secondly, I urge you to vote against H.R. 3 for the sake of genuine progress for suffering patients, who deserve better solutions than this most speculative and most divisive type of stem-cell research.”
One of the Democrats’ objectives in reintroducing legislation to fund embryonic stem-cell research before Congress was to bring public pressure on President Bush to drop his opposition to such funding.
There’s no sign of that happening.
“If H.R. 3 were presented to the President, he would veto the bill,” the executive office underlined in a Jan. 10 statement of administration policy.
“Embryonic stem-cell research is at an early stage of basic science and has never yielded a therapeutic application in humans,” said the policy statement. “Alternative types of human stem cells — drawn from adults, children, umbilical-cord blood, and other non-embryonic sources, without doing harm to the donors — have already achieved therapeutic results in thousands of patients with many different diseases.”
Along with the policy statement, the White House posted a comprehensive document on the issue, entitled “Advancing Stem-Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life,” on the Internet at whitehouse.gov/stemcell.
Rep. Smith said that by holding his position, Bush is buying valuable time that will allow more scientific research like this month’s amniotic study to come to light, establishing beyond debate that embryonic stem-cell research is unnecessary, as well as immoral.
Said Smith, “I think President Bush is to be praised for his courage and his moral compass.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.