WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate was to vote July 18 on a controversial measure to fund stem-cell research on human embryos. The bill would permit the use of federal funds to experiment on so-called “snowflake embryos” — the “extra” embryos left over and stored in the freezers of clinics that perform in vitro fertilizations. The experiments require killing the embryos.

The Register went to press the day before the expected Senate vote.

At the same time, after 12 hours of debate, the Senate also was to consider measures banning the farming of human fetuses and funding alternative methods of producing regenerative stem cells that do not require the destruction of embryos.

President Bush has promised to veto the stem-cell funding bill, which passed the House on May 24, 2005, by a vote of 238-194. The bill directly contravenes Bush’s declared stem-cell policy of Aug. 9, 2001, which states that federal funds will not be used for research that requires the destruction of new human embryos.

If Bush vetoes the bill, it will be the first veto of his presidency. Although the Senate could well muster the two-thirds vote needed to override Bush’s veto, the House would sustain the veto by a large margin. It was expected to pass the Senate with somewhere between 65 and 70 votes.

Cardinal William Keeler, writing to Senators on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, denounced the proposal for spending taxpayer dollars to kill embryos.

“The argument that ‘excess’ embryos may be discarded by clinics anyway is morally deficient,” reads the letter. “Such arguments have been rejected by our government in all other contexts, as when harmful experiments have been proposed on death row prisoners or on unborn children intended for abortion. The fact that others may do harm to these nascent lives gives Congress no right to join in the killing, much less to make everyone else complicit in it through their tax dollars.”

Groups supporting the funding denounced the president for his expected veto.

“The president is going to put his extreme religious ideology in front of a cure for millions who suffer from diseases,” said Jessica Smith, a spokeswoman for the Campaign to Defend the Constitution. Smith, whose group was set up to “combat the growing power of the religious right,” predicted political consequences for Bush and anyone else who opposes the bill. “I don’t believe that the American public is going to stand for this,” she said. “A majority of the values voters in this country believe that their values dictate caring for the ill.”

“It’s using federal money to destroy human life,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. “That’s what’s wrong with it at its very core.”

The Vatican weighed in on the issue June 29, when Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Family, told the Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana that human embryonic stem-cell research was “the same as abortion.” He reiterated that those who destroy embryos in stem-cell experiments are excommunicated ipso facto.

Along with the vote on funding for embryo research, the Senate will take up two other bills: one that would fund attempts to produce embryonic-type stem cells without killing embryos and another that would ban the farming of human fetuses for their cells.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., is pushing the former bill along with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., an advocate of embryonic research and experimental human cloning. Santorum held a panel discussion in June promoting his bill, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem-Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, asserting that it would help scientists develop pluripotent cells — expected to be useful in regenerative medicine — without killing human embryos.

“I am confident in this bill — it is pro-scientific progress, pro-stem-cell research, and pro-cures for diseases, but does not compromise my commitment to protecting innocent embryonic life,” Santorum said at the time.

The bishops’ conference is supporting his bill, said spokesman Richard Doerflinger, because it will fund attempts to produce pluripotent cells from adult tissue and using other ethical methods. “We support fully exploring the potential of adult stem-cell research, and umbilical-cord stem cells, said Doerflinger. “In the long run, that’s what we think is the bulk of what will be funded by this bill.”

The bill would probably also fund animal tests on the alternative methods of producing embryonic stem cells proposed by Stanford biologist William Hurlbut and supported by some prominent Catholic thinkers. This theoretical procedure, which resembles cloning and is called “altered nuclear transfer,” has caused much discussion among Catholics over whether or not it involves destroying a human life.

“The effort here is obviously to get these early, fast-growing cells without destroying embryos,” Brownback told the Register. “I am still studying the issue myself to see how I’m going to vote on it, because there are people who raise ethical questions even about this,” he said.

Another possible problem with Santorum’s bill is that it leaves the word “embryo” to be defined by each year’s appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services. In other words, a change in congressional control could allow a simple majority to redefine “embryo” and allow grants from the Santorum bill to go to the destruction of human embryos.

A human embryo is a unique boy or girl from conception to eight weeks, with DNA, life-expectancy — and the right to life.

Fetus Farming

The third bill, sponsored by Brownback, would criminalize the practice of farming human fetuses for their cells or parts. Already, Brownback said, there are rumblings that fetus farming could become commonplace in about a decade as scientists grow wary of embryonic cells, which are extremely unstable and therefore prone to mutate and develop into malignant tumors. One company, Advanced Cell Technologies, has already conducted a study cloning mice and growing them into fetuses before killing them for their more mature stem cells.

“We’re hearing some researchers saying that the embryonic stem cells grow fast, but they grow too fast and out of control,” said Brownback. “It’s feasible today to [farm fetuses], and there are people discussing it. The effort here is to head this off before they go down that road.”

David Freddoso
writes from Washington, D.C.