Stem cell decision is regrettable

By | March 12, 2009

With the latest executive order, Obama reversed a policy created by former President George W. Bush in 2001. Under the Bush policy, funding for research was only allowed on stem-cell lines that had been created before Aug. 9, 2001. The new policy allows federal funding for research on stem-cell lines created after that date, but not for funding of newly created lines. Congressional approval is needed to fund research on new stem-cell lines.

Obama’s decision gives the green light for renewed embryonic stem-cell research, which the U.S. bishops call “gravely immoral.”

Last June, the U.S. bishops issued “On Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: A Statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.” In their document the bishops say stem-cell research using human embryos is not only immoral but unnecessary.

They expressed a fear that is now being realized in the executive order.

“It now seems undeniable that once we cross the fundamental moral line that prevents us from treating any fellow human being as a mere object of research, there is no stopping point,” they said.

Medical researchers say stem-cell therapy has the potential to radically change the treatment of life-threatening diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. While the church opposes the use of embryonic stem cells, it supports other forms, particularly adult stem-cell research.

“The issue of stem-cell research does not force us to choose between science and ethics, much less between science and religion. It presents a choice as to how our society will pursue scientific and medical progress,” wrote the bishops.

The preferred method of stem-cell research, using adult stem cells, is already being used in bone marrow transplants as a treatment for leukemia, and more than 60 other therapies. In addition, the use of umbilical-cord blood has shown to offer a moral alternative to produce cells that benefit patients suffering many diseases.

What makes embryonic stem cells attractive is their ability to develop into each of the more than 200 cell types that exist in the adult body, offering a rich source for regenerative medicine and tissue replacement after injury or disease.

In 2007, however, two separate studies, including one from UW-Madison, concluded that, by injecting four genes into human skin cells, they can be reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells. With more research in this area, any argument for the need to harvest or destroy human embryos would be eliminated.

Why should we as Catholics be concerned about the use of genetic matter not visible to the human eye? Because it takes us down a path where taking one life to save another becomes acceptable.

The bishops’ statement puts it this way: “No commitment to a hoped-for ‘greater good’ can erase or diminish the wrong of directly taking innocent human lives here and now. In fact, policies undermining our respect for human life can only endanger the vulnerable patients that stem-cell research offers to help,” says the statement. “The same ethic that justifies taking some lives to help the patient with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease today can be used to sacrifice that very patient tomorrow.”

Last year, in a pastoral letter on stem-cell research, Wisconsin’s bishops noted that the church is not “seeking to impose narrow doctrinal beliefs, but rather to propose reasonable standards for the protection of human life and dignity.”

This, at least, is a message that cannot be reversed by executive order.

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