The blind desire of scientific researchers for embryonic stem cells is distressing . . .
On Aug. 23, Federal District Judge Royce C. Lamberth blocked President Obama’s 2009 executive order expanding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
The decision was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise poisonous environment for abandoned human embryos. The administration appealed, and in September the U.S. Court of Appeals put that injunction on hold while Lamberth reviews the lawsuit itself.
The blind desire of scientific researchers for embryonic stem cells has been one of the more distressing and regrettable developments of our time. Much of the news media seems to applaud this effort, and has used its influence to portray the debate as a struggle between enlightened science and benighted religious believers. How sad!
There is no need for us to kill our fellow human beings in order to make progress in the sciences. Most people know that there are two basic types of stem cells: adult (or perhaps better put, post-natal) and embryonic. Most have also heard that adult cells are generating all the progress in the effort to cure disease. Adult stem cells have been in practical application for decades and have a proven record of success.
Embryonic stem cells do not. The first human trial using embryonic stem cells was just recently approved, though Lamberth’s decision has thrown a legal wrench into the effort, along with the whole cause of embryonic stem cell research. Millions of dollars allocated by the National Institutes of Health for this type of work is up in the air because a judge faced and boldly acknowledged one simple fact: that embryos must first be killed to get their cells.
Lamberth ruled that the use of taxpayer dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law passed by Congress each year since 1996 that prohibits federal funding for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” This law reflects the majority view of Americans, who don’t want their tax monies used to support embryo destruction.
The Obama administration had argued that federal funding would not be distributed for the actual killing of the embryo, but only for the research on the cells taken afterwards. This reasoning didn’t fool Lamberth. “Had Congress intended to limit the Dickey-Wicker to only those discrete acts that result in the destruction of an embryo,” he said, “Congress could have written the statute that way. Congress, however, has not written the statute that way, and this Court is bound to apply the law as it is written.”
If you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. Only these are not eggs, but human beings. They result from the union of human sperm and eggs. This isn’t a benighted “religious” view, but standard science. We begin with the scientific fact that human embryos are human beings, and therefore should not be killed.
Of particular interest to Catholics is that the judge’s ruling followed the judgment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its recent Instruction, Dignitas Personae. In paragraph 35, the Congregation discussed the “criterion of independence” often used to defend the use of embryonic stem cell lines.
Some Catholic researchers said that if as they personally didn’t want these embryos destroyed, and weren’t responsible for their death, it would be licit to use the resulting lines. But as the Vatican pointed out, there can be no “radical separation of the act from its subsequent uses and applications.” One’s personal expression of opposition to embryo destruction suffers an immediate contradiction as soon as one willingly makes use of the resulting remains.
The Obama administration had made a similar argument. So long as federal money was not spent on the destruction of the embryo, taxpayers could fund embryonic stem cell research independently — and so without violation of the letter of law.
Remarkably, we have no need for embryonic stem cells today. We have known since 2006 that it’s possible to reprogram adult cells, giving us embryonic-like stem cells that don’t require the destruction of embryos.
These “induced pluripotent stem cells” have essentially the same properties as the embryonic, and so not only the same potential, but also the same problems. These cells tend to grow wildly and often produce dangerous tumors and clumps of tissue. Embryonic stem cells, which induced pluripotent stem cells mimic, are the earliest cells of the human body. They have an inherent drive to produce a variety different cell types. Not surprisingly, when that drive is not regulated by the embryo, they grow unchecked.
But what matters most for us as Catholics is not that adult stem cells are far more successful, or that induced pluripotent stem cells are a viable alternative to the embryonic, but that human life be respected from the moment of conception. Judge Lamberth has recognized that our law demands that respect.
Edward J. Furton, Ph.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.