WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted April 11 to fund scientific experiments on human embryos currently stored in in-vitro fertilization clinics.
The embryos would be killed in the process of doing research on their stem cells — cells that can develop into most other kinds of human cells — in the hope of someday finding regenerative cures to debilitating diseases.
Embryology teaches that a human embryo — from inception to eight weeks — is an individual boy or girl with his or her own unique DNA and normal 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).
Congress wants to use tax money withheld from Americans’ paychecks to pay for the deadly experiments.
The bill, which passed on a 63-34 vote, would reverse President Bush’s policy prohibiting the use of federal money in research that kills human embryos. Bush reiterated his promise to veto the bill on April 11: “The advancement of science and medicine need not conflict with the ethical imperative to protect every human life,” the president said after the bill’s passage. Bush vetoed a similar bill last year in what was the first veto of his administration.
The Church states in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1987 instruction, Donum Vitae (Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation), “Medical research must refrain from operations on live embryos, unless there is a moral certainty of not causing harm to the life or integrity of the unborn child and the mother, and on condition that the parents have given their free and informed consent to the procedure. It follows that all research, even when limited to the simple observation of the embryo, would become illicit were it to involve risk to the embryo’s physical integrity or life by reason of the methods used or the effects induced” (No. 4).
Although the embryonic research bill passed overwhelmingly, the Senate vote was a small victory for pro-lifers. By holding on to 34 votes, they guaranteed that the bill is at least one vote shy of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. With Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., hospitalized for months now and unable to participate in votes, supporters of the embryonic research bill had been expected to fall short anyway. But because pro-lifers actually found 34 votes, there is a guarantee that Bush’s veto will be upheld.
Moreover, the House of Representatives passed a similar bill earlier this year by a vote of 253 to 174 — well short of the two-thirds needed to override a veto.
“I wish we’d won the vote,” said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who has made cloning and stem-cell research his top issues during nine years in the U.S. Senate. “I think we won the debate, but people are pretty much locked into their positions,” he said. “Still, we got to talk for two days on the Senate floor — in the most prestigious deliberative body in the world — about the dignity of the human person at all stages of life. Hopefully we’re making more and more people think again about this question.”
Stem cells are undifferentiated, primitive cells in the blood, umbilical cord, placenta and bone marrow that have the ability both to multiply and to differentiate into specific blood cells and other cell/tissue types. This ability allows them to replace cells that have died, and they have been used to replace defective cells and/or tissues.
Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves killing a living human being in an attempt to find a cure for different diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a single human cure.
Pope John Paul II said that all research using stem cells from human embryos is “morally unacceptable.”
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life), John Paul said, “This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases.
“The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.”
The Senate vote was the latest round in the battle over the ethical boundaries of government-funded research. Supporters of government funds for embryonic-destructive research argue that the research will bring about miraculous cures and therapies to treat diseases that are currently untreatable. They view ethical objections to such research as a mere hindrance to the progress of science
“It is time to take the handcuffs off our scientists, those who say they will then be able to pursue what all Americans are hoping for and promising research for so many diseases that impact so many of our families,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in the Senate debate. “For too long, this president has allowed politics and ideology to trump lifesaving research.”
In fact, however, embryonic stem-cell research is a highly speculative field that attracts very little private investment because such cures could be decades away.
If therapies using embryonic cells are someday developed, embryonic stem cells would be obtained through the cloning of patients. The clones would be killed for their stem cells, which would in turn be used to treat the patients. The problem is that cloned stem-cells are extremely unstable and tend to produce malignant tumors in animal trials. To date, no clinical trials on humans are possible because of this danger.
Meanwhile, in the less controversial field of adult stem cell research, new breakthroughs are being achieved regularly. Because the cells are taken from patients themselves and not clones, they are usually stable and do not carry the same risk of tumors. They also are morally acceptable.
Non-embryonic stem-cell therapies have now been used in human beings to treat 73 different diseases — in fact, during the Senate debate, one more breakthrough in adult stem-cell treatments was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A team of American and Brazilian doctors successfully caused a group of diabetics to begin producing insulin on their own again through a treatment involving a mild form of chemotherapy and the use of adult stem cells from their own blood.
“I’ve always thought that as long as we can maintain the position of not killing more embryos, the research would continue to favor our position,” Brownback said. “I think that’s already playing out.”
Casey Votes Pro-Life
Among those voting against the embryonic research bill were two Democrats: Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and freshman Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
Casey’s late father, as a Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, was a hero of the pro-life politics that had dominated the Democratic Party until the 1960s. Many had wondered whether the young Casey would follow in his footsteps. Casey announced his decision to vote against the funding bill on the morning of the vote.
His vote is the first answer to questions about just how pro-life he would be in the U.S. Senate. Those questions were first raised when he took on and defeated pro-life Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. in last year’s election.
Casey said in a statement: “As I said throughout my Senate campaign, I support the current federal policy funding embryonic stem-cell research. There have been several encouraging scientific developments that hold promise for the treatment of a number of diseases and conditions. In particular, advances in amniotic stem-cell and adult-cell reprogramming research give new hope for scientific breakthroughs.
“In addition, I support increased funding for research on umbilical cord and placenta stem cells as well as the possibility of embryonic stem-cell research methods that do not destroy the embryo. I also support increased funding for basic health research through the National Institutes of Health.
“I remain opposed to federal funding for research that involves the destruction of living embryos,” he said. “That is why I cannot support S.5, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act.
“Over the past several months, I have met with many people on all sides of this issue,” he continued. “I have listened carefully, especially to those whose loved ones are suffering from serious diseases and disabilities and who disagree with my position. I deeply respect their views and hope they can come to understand mine.”
“He deserves nothing but praise,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. “Part of the reason the Democrats control the House and Senate this year is that they moderated, they opened the doors to pro-lifers in their party and elected pro-life members,” she said. “It’s exciting to see someone as high-profile as Casey take a brave stance like this.”
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the top three Republican presidential candidates for 2008, voted in favor of funding embryonic research. Although he had voted for embryo-destructive research in the past, McCain had led some pro-life leaders to believe that he might move in their direction as he sought to position himself for a presidential run.
“I was very disappointed,” said Dannenfelser. “Sen. McCain gave the pro-life movement great reason for hope because of a lot of things he was saying along the way.”
Joe Cella, president of the Catholic activist group Fidelis, said that McCain’s vote was not really a big surprise, since it reflected his previous position. “Still, I’m really concerned that this will increase the pro-life divide that exists with Sen. McCain,” he said.
The Senate also easily passed a bill, 70-28, which allows funding for research into alternative means of obtaining stem cells “not derived from a human embryo.” The alternative techniques for obtaining such cells include a controversial theory of how to create embryo-like entities that cannot develop, and the extraction of stem cells from dead embryos.
Some pro-lifers, such as American Life League’s Judie Brown, however, were wary of the bill, the Hope Offered Through Principles and Ethical Stem Cell Research Act (HOPE). According to the bill, the term “naturally dead” means having “naturally and irreversibly lost the capacity for integrated cellular division, growth and differentiation that is characteristic of an organism, even if some cells of the former organism may be alive in a disorganized state.”
Brown said the “arbitrary decision to deem certain embryonic children as ‘naturally dead,’ even though they may be alive and growing, is extremely dangerous.”
The bill would also allow funds for research into how adult stem cells can be made to act like embryonic stem cells.
writes from Washington.