March 3, 2000
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently closed the period for public comment on its draft guidelines for funding human embryonic stem cell research. Enclosed are the comments submitted by the Catholic bishops of the United States, which urge the NIH to withdraw these guidelines. Many thousands of Americans and over a hundred members of Congress have done so as well. I hope you will read our comments to understand more fully why we believe that the NIH proposal is unethical and illegal, as well as unnecessary for medical progress.
On January 31, however, Senators Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin introduced the "Stem Cell Research Act" (S. 2015) to approve and expand the NIH's proposal. Senator Specter said he was introducing this legislation because he does not believe the NIH proposal "goes far enough" (Cong. Record, Jan. 31, 2000, page S150). The Act would explicitly overturn Congress's current ban on direct federal funding for the destruction of human embryos. I urge you to oppose this legislation.
The argument used to justify S. 2015 is that "Federal researchers need their own supply of stem cells" (Id., page S150). However, the NIH proposal itself authorizes federal researchers to obtain their own supply of stem cells, so long as federal funds are not used for the specific act of destroying human embryos for their cells. S. 2015 would authorize federal researchers to obtain their own supply of living human embryos, so the NIH can then use federal funds to kill those human beings to obtain research material.
While Senator Specter described his proposal as "almost identical" to current law allowing fetal tissue research, that is not the case. Federal funding policies allow harvesting of tissue from aborted or miscarried children only after they are dead, and no federal researcher may be involved in any way in the decision to kill that child. The research to be funded under S. 2015 is the abortion -- it is precisely the cell harvesting procedure that kills the unborn child. The NIH's proposal violates Federal policies established in 1993 for fetal tissue research; moreover, the Specter/Harkin proposal does so more completely, by directly funding the destruction of life.
Some may claim it begs the question to speak of "human life" in this context. Yet even the NIH's own Human Embryo Research Panel and President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) have both conceded that the early human embryo deserves respect as a "form of human life." If Congress were to approve S. 2015, it would officially declare for the first time in our nation's history that government may exploit and destroy human life for research purposes. Indeed, the destructive embryo experiments that would be federally funded under this bill are felonies in some states, including Senator Specter's home state.
The sponsors seek to justify the destruction of these embryos on the grounds that they "have been discarded" by fertility clinics and have no "potentiality for life" (Id., page S150). This is not true. They are living, developing human beings who will be killed by the federally funded harvesting procedure itself. Another claim is that these embryos "would otherwise be discarded" if not killed by researchers (page S151). This claim, too, is highly questionable. Many fertility clinics housing supposedly "spare" embryos have never discarded a single embryo. S. 2015 would give them a new incentive to begin doing so.
Senator Harkin has argued further that these embryos may be destroyed because they are "no longer needed for fertility treatments" (page S152). In other words, the federal government is justified in helping to destroy them simply because their parents no longer want them.
Such a rationale is in conflict with all of Congress's modest efforts to respect unborn human life in federally funded programs over the past quarter of a century. The fact that an unborn child may be "no longer needed" or wanted by parents, and thus intended for abortion, has never been seen by Congress as a reason for using federal funds to take part in the killing. In fact, since 1985 Congress has said that children intended for abortion must be treated in federally funded research with the same respect as children intended for live birth (42 USC §289g(b)). Since 1996, Congress has explicitly required that this principle of equal respect be applied to human embryos at risk of being harmed or discarded outside the womb (see Section 510 of the Fiscal Year 2000 Labor/HHS Appropriations Act, reprinted in Congressional Record, Nov. 17, 1999, page H12400). Clearly, no government should requisition innocent human beings for deadly experiments on the grounds that they are "unwanted" or unpopular.
I urge you to oppose legislation such as S. 2015 as well as the NIH stem cell guidelines themselves, because both proposals demean human dignity by promoting the destruction of human life.
Cardinal William H. Keeler
Archbishop of Baltimore
Chairman, Committee for Pro-Life Activities
National Conference of Catholic Bishops