Bush vs. Kerry: Stem-Cell Basics

There is a lot of confusion about the stem-cell issue. There needn't be.

But the presidential campaign has only added to the confusion.

Sen. John Kerry said early in October that President Bush has been too willing to “sacrifice science for extreme, right-wing ideology.”

It's a shocking statement that is highly offensive to Catholics. The U.S. bishops said that Bush's policy should have limited embryonic stem-cell research even more. Does Kerry really believe that the policy of the U.S. bishops — and the magisterium — can be dismissed as “right-wing ideology”?

Meanwhile, President Bush's policy on stem cells — to allow research on some embryonic stem-cell lines but not others — does not invite clarity, either.

The bottom line in the embryonic stem-cell debate is really very simple. A human embryo is a child in the first eight weeks from conception, already a unique boy or girl with his or her own DNA, life expectancy and right to life. If you're for embryonic stem-cell research, you are for creating and killing human beings for research purposes.

Pope John Paul II — who suffered under the Nazi occupation of Poland — is so concerned that we avoid doing this that he mentioned it in his 2001 apostolic letter setting the Church's agenda for the new millennium.

There, he wrote: “The service of humanity leads us to insist, in season and out of season, that those using the latest advances of science, especially in the field of biotechnology, must never disregard fundamental ethical requirements by invoking a questionable solidarity which eventually leads to discriminating between one life and another and ignoring the dignity which belongs to every human being” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 51).

The Vatican has said it again and again: Research that kills embryos is impermissible. But one important distinction has to be made. While embryonic stem-cell research is always wrong, there is nothing wrong with non-fatal adult stem-cell research.

Quite the contrary. It needs to be pointed out that embryonic stem-cell research has produced only negative effects on patients’ health so far while stem-cell research using morally obtained adult cells has had a host of exciting curative results.

Adult stem cells have scored a long list of medical accomplishments. Among them:

— Adult stem-cell treatment, used without any other medication, improved one Parkinson's patient's health by 83% (as determined by the Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale).

— Multiple-sclerosis patients have benefited from adult stem-cell regenerative medicine.

— Adult stem cells helped a paraplegic patient regain bladder control and some movement.

— Mature stem cells helped treat severe immunity problems in children.

— In mice, mature stem cells have greatly improved diabetic conditions.

Unfortunately, news stories have created the myth that embryonic stem cells hold medical secrets that can save patients like actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease.

This has changed public opinion — but it hasn't changed the sense most people have that creating and killing human beings for research purposes is wrong.

In an Aug. 16-18 poll (with a 3.1% margin of error) conducted by Wilson Research Strategies, 53% of respondents said they opposed “using tax dollars to pay for the kind of stem-cell research that requires the killing of human embryos,” while only 38% said they support this. At the same time, 74% of respondents said they “support using tax dollars to pay for the kind of stem-cell research that does not require the killing of human embryos,” while only 20% opposed this.

The two candidates have sharply different beliefs and records regarding stem-cell research.

President Bush made headlines by offering the first federal grants for embryonic stem-cell research in August. But his policy funded research only on cell lines that had already been developed. He refused federal funding for research that would kill new embryos.

While his policy was criticized by some pro-lifers and the U.S. bishops, others (including the Register) argued that it was the most pro-life tactic available to him.

John Kerry has recently been campaigning in support of embryonic stem-cell research, saying, “I will stop at nothing to get stem-cell research moving in this country.”

This editorial is one in a series about Catholic issues facing voters in the November election.