July 7, 2004
Dear Appropriations Committee Member:
Amendments may soon be offered to the Labor/HHS appropriations bill, to authorize the use of federal funds to encourage the destruction of innocent human life. Such amendments would reverse President Bush's compromise policy on embryonic stem cell (ESC) research, so the offer of federal funds for such research could be used to encourage researchers to destroy new embryos from fertility clinics for their cells. I urge you to oppose such amendments.
Obviously such efforts are in direct violation of any ethic that deserves to be called pro-life. Government has no business forcing taxpayers to support research that relies on the direct destruction of any human life.
This is in no way changed by the argument that these human embryos "would have been discarded anyway." In fact, if parents have decided to have an embryo discarded, current ethical and legal standards forbid using the embryo for destructive research instead. In any case, this also fails as a moral argument. The fact that many abortions are performed in the U.S. creates no argument that Congress must use its funding power to promote such killing. The claim that humans who may soon die should automatically become fodder for lethal experiments also has ominous implications for research using condemned prisoners and terminally ill patients. In the final analysis, all of us will die anyway, but that gives no one a right to kill us.
Moreover, in light of current evidence, this agenda even violates the ethical consensus stated by prominent supporters of embryonic stem cell research.
In 1999, President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) acknowledged broad agreement in our society that early human embryos "deserve respect as a form of human life" (NBAC, Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research, 1999, p. ii). The Commission therefore concluded that research requiring the destruction of these human lives should be seen as a last resort, saying: "In our judgment, the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research." (Id., p. 53).
The Commission recommended funding ESC research because it thought at that time that no alternatives existed; but it said this factual judgment "must be revisited continually as science advances"(Id.).
In the intervening five years, knowledge of stem cells has indeed advanced – through privately funded research, and through federally funded research using adult stem cells, animal ESCs, and the human ESC lines eligible for funding under the Bush Administration's policy. As a result, researchers now know that the apparent initial "promise" of ESCs was exaggerated. For example, because of their genetic instability and tendency to form potentially lethal tumors in host animals, these cells may not be ready for human clinical trials for many years, if ever. At the same time, adult stem cells and other avenues that pose no moral problem have advanced quickly toward human clinical trials to treat corneal damage, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, sickle-cell anemia, cardiac damage and many other conditions. (For details see www.stemcellresearch.org.)
In short, the blind have begun to see, the lame have begun to walk, and those condemned to death are being reprieved – partly because some dedicated scientists and physicians were not convinced that stem cells obtained by destroying human embryos were the sole or indispensable road to treatments.
At this point in medical science, the question is not whether alternative ways are available to pursue the therapeutic goals served by ESCs – on the contrary, it is whether ESCs will ever catch up with the therapeutic benefits now arising from the alternatives. After decades of research in animal ESCs and five years of concentrated research on human ESCs, no safe and effective therapeutic use for ESCs has been discovered. Clearly, even by the inadequate ethic proposed by NBAC, the burden of proof required to fund ESC research has not been met.
The current federal policy of funding research on a limited number of existing ESC lines has achieved its stated goal – that of exploring which avenues of stem cell research will most quickly and effectively lead to promising treatments. If there is to be any change in the existing policy, it should be to end this limited funding of ESC research altogether, so taxpayers' resources can more effectively be marshaled for research avenues that now appear to be more ethically and medically sound.
To insist now on a broader policy of promoting ESC research, using federal funds to encourage more destruction of human embryos, would fly in the face of the medical evidence and violate even the most minimal standards of respect for early human life. I urge you to reject that agenda, and instead support promising medical research that all Americans can live with.
Cardinal William Keeler
Archbishop of Baltimore
Chairman, Committee for Pro-Life Activities
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops