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October 5, 2001 Issue
Special Section:
Respect Life Month

A road that should perhaps be less taken

Alternatives needed to the moral evil of embryonic stem cell research

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

"(M)ost scientists, at least today, believe that research on embryonic stem cells offers the most promise because these cells have the potential to develop in all the tissues in the body."

This statement by Pres. George W. Bush in an Aug. 9 address to the nation, explains, at least in part, why his administration gave the go-ahead to federally fund embryonic stem cell research on already created stem cell lines. Yet such research, even on embryos where, as the president said, "the life and death decision has already been made," is morally wrong.

The Vatican, over a year ago, made clear that destroying embryos, for whatever reason, is wrong.

"(T)he living human embryo is -- from the moment of the union of the gametes -- a human subject with a well defined identity ... (with) the right to its own life; and therefore every intervention which is not in favor of the embryo is an act that violates that right" (Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells, Aug. 2000).

Going even further, the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life added that research on embryos, even by those who did not kill them, is "material cooperation" in their deaths.

Clear moral evil?

Fr. Robert Sirico of Grand Rapids, Mich., is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. The Institute is a group of experts who offer economic and ethics advice to many groups, including the Bush administration. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece (July 15, 2001), Fr. Sirico noted that those supporting the use of embryos for research "embrace the idea that there are, or can be, whole living members of the human race who are 'human non-persons' -- human beings who may be treated as mere means to other ends, rather than ends in themselves."

In a subsequent interview with The Compass, Fr. Sirico said that his objection to the Bush policy centers on "the possibility that the fruits of this research will cause political pressure to build in Congress in favor of further funding, including the destruction of yet more human beings, as well as the odious possibility of actually bringing human embryos into existence with this very purpose in mind... In my estimation, the stakes are just too high."

Fr. Edward Richard, a professor of moral theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary near St. Louis, Mo., notes that this research is clearly moral evil -- unlike the question of using already-developed vaccines. (See sidebar.)

"We are destroying embryos to harvest stem cells to do research," says Fr. Richard. "The circumstances encourage further destruction of embryos, because research already shows that these stem cells are not sufficient... The whole situation pushes us along to greater evil."

Can we control it?

Of course, there is the argument that we can monitor ourselves to prevent more evil. Dan Maguire, professor of moral theology at Marquette University, supports embryonic stem cell research and dismisses what he calls "the domino objection" to it. "Good ethics," Maguire says, "is a matter of drawing lines."

This is much the same premise Pres. Bush has used in establishing a presidential council, headed by Dr. Leon Kass, "to monitor stem cell research." In this way, the president hopes that "we will always be guided by both intellect and heart, by both our capabilities and our conscience."

Maguire would agree, citing a Latin maxim that "the fact that something can be abused, doesn't mean that you cannot use it." Again, he says, it's a matter of good monitoring. He adds, though, that history shows us that "human genius can be overdone."

Examples of this are not hard to find:

• Nazis used prisoners to experiment with sterilization and cancer research. As Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess said at his 1946 Nuremberg trial: "Most of the people who died under these experiments had already been condemned to death by the Gestapo."

• The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1932-72), conducted by the U.S. Health Service, allowed 399 black men with syphilis to suffer and often die so that progress of the disease could be monitored.

• In the 1940s and 1950s, MIT and Harvard University, funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and Quaker Oats, studied mentally retarded patients at the Fernald School to see how much radiation they absorbed from deliberately contaminated milk and cereal. In 1997, MIT and Quaker Oats paid $1.85 million to the test subjects and their families.)

This sort of history is exactly what worries people like Richard Doerflinger, associate director for policy development for the U.S. Bishops' Pro-life Secretariat, about current research on human embryos.

"It demands constant scrutiny," he says. "Researchers are always tempted to bypass the moral questions for the sake of the goal."

And no one argues that the goal -- medical benefit -- is noble.

In an Aug. 27 statement, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor, a Catholic, and supporter of embryonic stem cell research, said, "Pres. Bush (has) opened the door to the full spectrum of ethically acceptable stem cell research. Now it's time for our scientists to walk through that door, into the laboratory, and begin research into the full range of research that is needed to determine the true potential of stem cells to conquer some of the worst diseases that plague humanity."


But we need to remember the goal must be reached while offering beneficial alternatives for all involved. The Tuskegee subjects and the Fernald students were not aware of alternatives -- or even of the dangers they faced.

It is not that dissimilar a situation to that faced by parents today when giving their children the only vaccines available to protect them from diseases -- vaccines with an association to abortion. (See accompanying articles.) Yet because parents have the moral obligation to protect their children, they have no alternatives but to use these vaccines. Otherwise, they risk death. (Between 1989 and 1991, 11,000 people were hospitalized in the United States from complications with measles and 130 died.)

That is not the case we face with stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are not the only choice.

"So far," says Fr. Richard, "everything successful has been (created) from adult stem cells. The 'There's no alternative' argument doesn't apply here."

In fact, adult stem cells have been used for decades. The University of Minnesota performed the first successful human blood and bone marrow transplant in 1968. And there are scattered reports of the successful use of transplanted bone marrow dating back to 1939.

Bone marrow transplants contain hematopoietic cells, which are basically blood stem cells. Since the 1980s, bone marrow transplants to cure or remit certain cancers -- including Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia -- as well as aplastic anemia, have become common.

In early September this year, Dr. James Thomson of UW-Madison, one of the first to isolate embryonic stems cell in late 1998, announced he had developed hematopoietic cells from embryonic cells.

Hematopoietic cells may well provide the base for many other treatments. Because of this potential, researchers who can culture hematopoietic cells -- whether from adults or embryos -- stand to control powerful patents, even if they don't develop the actual treatments.

"It's become much more of a sales program than an ethical decision," says Fr. Kevin Fitzgerald, SJ, a bioethicist and cancer researcher at Georgetown. He points out that researchers who develop a successful treatment from stem cells "will get a chunk of whatever that brings in. So everyone wants to be first."

This is especially pertinent for Wisconsin since UW-Madison developed five of roughly two dozen developed embryonic stem cell lines. (After the President's Aug. 9 speech, it became clear that, while he spoke of 60 stem cell lines, not all those stem cell lines were suitable for research. For example, some are contaminated with animal cells. Additionally, Wisconsin's cell lines are the first ones approved (on Sept. 4) for use by government-funded researchers.

The question of monetary profit raises the stakes in the moral arena and makes it all the more crucial to understand that there are alternatives to embryonic stem cell research.

For example, hematopoietic cells have already been developed from adult stem cells at many research facilities, including at the Naval Medical Research Center in Bethesda, Md., which has used adult stem cells to cure radiation sickness.

In all the debate over embryonic stem cells, -- what Fr. Fitzgerald calls "a lot of hype" -- people do not always realize that there are viable alternatives.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has compiled a list of treatments already developed from adult stem cells, including pancreatic islet cell transplants to cure juvenile diabetes, corneal stem cells for transplants and spinal cord repair. (See sidebar, Page 5A, for others.)

"If these alternatives are allowed to compete," says the USCCB's Doerflinger, "it will become evident that they are superior."

What happens if?

If, on the other hand, embryonic stem cell research continues and a subsequent cure for a disease like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's is found, then people will be faced with "gut-wrenching pastoral issues here," says Huebscher.

Doerflinger agrees. "The dilemma for pro-life and pro-life people will be more severe because the connection to taking a life is more direct. It is incumbent upon us Catholics to urge pharmaceutical companies not to do research in these areas."

Encouraging destruction?

And as we question our moral entanglement, it is important to know that, as recently as July, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that there were only about 30 embryonic stem cell lines developed for research. By the time of the president's Aug. 9 speech, the NIH said there were over 60 such lines.

"Many of these 64 stem cell lines were created in the last six months," says Doerflinger. "So the (Bush) administration was involved in encouraging the destruction of embryos in the first place."

A result of that encouragement, no matter how unintentional, can be seen in The Jones Institute of Reproductive Medicine, part of the Eastern Virginia Medical School. The institute reported, in July, that it had created and destroyed stem cells. Its web site claims such research helps "identify the in vitro culture conditions that will provide the optimal growth of the embryo to the blastocyst stage. Improving rates to the blastocyst stage, the stage the embryo reaches just prior to implantation in the uterine lining, will allow patients the selection of the highest quality embryos ..."

And, on Oct. 1, Associated Press quoted UW-Madison researcher James Thomson as stating he will go ahead with growing new stem cell lines using new human embryos since current cell lines are contaminated with animal cells. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation will fund Thomson's project since it will not qualify for federal funding under Pres. Bush's guidelines.

No matter our feelings on embryonic research, we cannot deny that embryos have died for their possible benefit to each of us. And, clearly, new embryos will also die.

"That is, in fact, what researchers are calling for," says Fr. Fitzgerald.

Unlike the question of any present guilt about vaccine research -- which involves past deaths that occurred decades ago -- we are squarely faced with embryo destruction that has happened in our time, and continues to happen today. It is a fact we must also face in this present research debate.

As Fr. Sirico says, "The potential of what good can come is never a sufficient warrant to employ all means ... science tells us truth about the world and even about human life -- but it does not tell us the whole truth."

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