WASHINGTON (September 29, 2004) -- An official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) told a Congressional subcommittee that campaigns for increased public funding of embryonic stem cell research have grown "in inverse proportion to the dwindling hopes of medical benefit, as private funding sources increasingly realize that embryonic stem cell research may not be a wise investment."
"We should not succumb to this latest campaign, but reflect on the ethical errors that brought us this far," Richard M. Doerflinger said.
Mr. Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, discussed ethical and policy concerns regarding embryonic stem cell research in testimony (September 29) before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.
His testimony centered on the need for ethical safeguards in human research, the moral status of the human embryo, and the reality of an ethical slippery slope.
He told the subcommittee that the central ethical issue raised by this research occurs when proponents of unlimited research freedom complain that ethical restraints get in the way of "progress."
"This tension between technical advance and respect for research subjects is at least as old as modern medicine itself," Mr. Doerflinger said.
"Because scientists, and the for-profit companies that increasingly support and make use of their research, are always tempted to treat helpless members of the human family as mere means to their ends, the rest of society--including government—must supply the urgently needed barrier against unethical exploitation of human beings," the USCCB official said.
He added that the principle that the embryo deserves respect as a member of the human family is reflected in many areas of federal law, and has been recognized by all federal advisory groups discussing human embryo research for 25 years.
"Catholic morality regarding respect for human life, and any secular ethic in agreement with its basic premises, rejects all deliberate involvement with the direct killing of human embryos for research or any other purpose," Mr. Doerflinger said. "Such killing is gravely and intrinsically wrong, and no promised beneficial consequences can lessen that wrong. This conviction is also held by many American taxpayers, who should not be forced by government to promote with their tax dollars what they recognize as a direct killing of innocent human persons."
"But even those who do not hold the human embryo to be a full-fledged human person can conclude that embryonic stem cell research is unethical," he continued. "Many moral wrongs fall short of the full gravity of homicide but are nonetheless seriously wrong. Setting aside 'personhood,' surely no one prefers research that requires destroying human life."
In 1999, he said, President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission concluded that obtaining stem cells from embryos in fertility clinics "is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research." The burden of proof needed to justify embryonic stem cell research by NBAC's ethical standard has never been met, he said.
"Problems of tumor formation, uncontrollability, and genetic instability are now cited among the reasons why embryonic stem cells cannot safely be used in human trials any time in the foreseeable future. At the same time, non-embryonic stem cells have moved quickly into promising clinical trials for a wide array of conditions, including spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, heart damage and corneal damage."
The USCCB official told the subcommittee that no new breakthroughs have shown that embryonic stem cells are ready or almost ready for clinical use.
"More than two decades of research using mouse embryonic stem cells have produced no treatments in mice that are safe or effective enough for anyone to propose in humans," he said. "These cells have not helped a single human being, and the practical barriers to their safe and effective use loom larger than ever. Meanwhile, alternative approaches that harm no human being have moved forward to offer realistic hope for patients who many said could be helped only by research that destroys human embryos."
"Even proponents of the research have admitted that it poses an ethical problem, because it involves destroying human lives deserving our respect," Mr. Doerflinger said.
"Congress should take stock now and realize that the promise of this approach is too speculative, and the cost too high," he stated.
NOTE: The full text of Mr. Doerflinger's testimony may be found on the Web at www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/bioethic/embryo/test092904.htm