WASHINGTON (April 29, 2004) -- An official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) challenged a letter signed by more than 200 House members urging President Bush to encourage destruction of new human embryos for stem cell research.
"Besides demonstrating a lack of respect for developing human life, that letter also relies on demonstrably false factual claims," said Richard M. Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. He called the letter "a sad commentary on lawmakers' level of knowledge on this issue" and urged signers to retract their signatures.
The letter is based on an announcement in the March 25 New England Journal of Medicine that Harvard scientists used private funds to kill 344 human embryos, producing 17 new embryonic stem cell (ESC) lines. ESC proponents now demand federal funding for research using these cell lines and others that may be created in the future.
According to the congressional letter, the cell lines now eligible for federal funding are insufficient for human clinical trials, and are "contaminated" by the mouse feeder cells in which they were cultured. The letter also claims that "more than 400,000 IVF embryos" now residing in freezers are available for creating new ESC lines.
"Members of Congress who signed the letter need to be aware of some basic facts," Mr. Doerflinger said.
According to the USCCB official, the new Harvard cell lines have the same qualities that supposedly make the currently eligible cell lines unsuitable for clinical use. "Recent studies suggest that all human embryonic stem cell lines may develop genetic abnormalities similar to those found in cancer cells…This is a problem with embryonic stem cells in general, preventing their use in humans for the foreseeable future," he said.
While the May 2003 issue of Fertility and Sterility estimated that there may be 400,000 frozen embryos in the U.S., the same article said that the vast majority of these embryos are slated for later reproductive use, and that the number available for research is about 11,000, Mr. Doerflinger noted. The article said that "as many as" 275 cell lines might be obtainable this way, but this number "would surely be inadequate for treating any major disease in the U.S.," said Mr. Doerflinger.
The USCCB official said the United States remains the world's leader in biotechnology development, and the states and nations experiencing the most rapid development in this field are often those with laws against so-called "therapeutic" cloning and/or destructive embryo research. "American patients have found they have limited access to some new treatments, in part because the U.S. fixation on embryo research has let other countries take the lead in groundbreaking adult cell therapies for juvenile diabetes (Canada), spinal cord injury (Portugal and Israel), and cardiac repair (France, Germany and Brazil)," he said.
"I hope members of Congress who signed the letter to President Bush will study this issue further, and realize that they have been drawn into a political agenda that is not grounded in the facts," Mr. Doerflinger said.
NOTE: The full text of Mr. Doerflinger's letter to Congress may be found on the Web at HTTP: WWW.USCCB.ORG/PROLIFE/ISSUES/BIOETHIC/SCRHOUSE42804.htm