by Richard M. Doerflinger
August 18, 2000
This April, many thousands of Americans heard or saw congressional testimony by Hollywood personality Christopher Reeve on stem cell research. Speaking from his electric wheelchair, he urged Congress to set aside its moral qualms and enact legislation forcing taxpayers to subsidize the killing of human embryos to obtain their stem cells for research. These cells, he said, offer the best hope for a cure for himself and others with spinal cord injury.
There were dissenting voices. Mary Jane Owen of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities, Senator Sam Brownback, and former FDA commissioner Frank Young opposed Senator Arlen Specter's "Stem Cell Research Act" (S. 2015). They said it is wrong to destroy some human beings to help others; and they said such destruction is increasingly recognized to be unnecessary, due to advances using adult stem cells and other alternatives.
Mr. Reeve dismissed their arguments. He said that so-called "spare" embryos from fertility clinics will be "tossed away as so much garbage" in any case, so it is not morally wrong to get some use out of them. He added that stem cells from adults offer no viable alternative, because they "are no longer pluripotent, or capable of transforming into other cell types." No scientist himself, Mr. Reeve presented himself as speaking for the researchers at his own Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.
Two new events in August have raised serious questions about this testimony and the campaign of which it is a part.
The first event is something to celebrate: A startling breakthrough published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, showing that adult stem cells from bone marrow can be directed to provide an "abundant and accessible" supply of nerve cells for transplant. The authors say this confirms earlier studies suggesting that adult stem cells "may be less restricted than was previously thought" – that they can indeed be "pluripotent."
These stem cells can easily be obtained from a patient's own bone marrow, cultured to produce a virtually unlimited supply of new nerve cells, and transplanted back into that patient to treat many illnesses and disabilities of the brain and spinal cord. Because the cells are a perfect genetic match for the patient, they avoid the ethical problem of destroying embryos and the medical problem of coaxing the body to accept foreign tissue. Our bodies supply their own repair kits, so we can pursue cures without cannibalizing our young.
This groundbreaking research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, both of which strongly support human embryo research. An extra surprise: The Foundation's subsidized researchers submitted this astonishing study for publication on March 31 – a month before the Foundation had Mr. Reeve testify that adult stem cells are incapable of producing different cell types. How could Foundation officials have been unaware that their testimony was false?
Aside from this latest apparent instance of anti-life politics falsifying science, the new breakthrough raises a question: If we use embryonic cells instead of a patient's own adult cells, how do researchers plan to keep such foreign tissue from being rejected?
This brings us to the second event of August. The British government announced its support for experiments in which human embryos are created by cloning and then killed for their stem cells. British scientists think that the only sure way to prevent embryonic cells from being rejected by patients' bodies is to make the embryos to order, using patients' own DNA. These embryos will be created only for destruction – in fact it will be illegal to try to bring such an embryo to live birth. Government will define a class of human beings that it is illegal not to kill!
It seems U.S. plans for using "spare" embryos from fertility clinics are increasingly being abandoned on scientific grounds. The U.S. biotechnology company most deeply involved in funding such research, the Geron Corporation, has now merged with the Scottish firm that used cloning to make "Dolly" the sheep. Geron will combine its own stem cell expertise with the cloning know-how (and looser laws) of the British isles to begin an international traffic in creating and destroying human lives for profit.
A Clinton Administration official reacted to the British news by saying that human cloning is "anathema" to President Clinton. Yet the Administration's own proposed guidelines for embryonic stem cell research permit use of stem cells obtained by killing specially created embryos – as long as the act of creating them was done with non-federal funds. Senator Specter's Stem Cell Research Act has a similar loophole. New human embryos could be created by cloning in Great Britain, then exported to the U.S. to be killed for their cells.
Increasingly, the logic-splitting and evasions used by the NIH and others to make their embryo research proposals look "moderate" are breaking down. Our society's choices are narrowing down to a dilemma: Do we explore the enormously promising avenue of stem cell research guided by strong moral principles – or will we turn human life into a mere object, by devoting ourselves to creating and destroying innocent human life for our own ends? Or as Pope John Paul II has phrased it: Do we want a culture of life, or an ever-expanding culture of death?
Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.