Ethics - Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Perilous Pursuit?

September-October 2006

BY: RON HAMEL, Ph.D.
Dr. Hamel is senior director, ethics, Catholic Health Association, St. Louis

Pressures continue to mount to expand embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). On July 18, 2006, the U.S. Senate passed a bill (subsequently vetoed by the president) that would have allowed federal funding of ESCR employing stem cells derived from "left over" frozen embryos from in vitro fertilization. The bill would have undone the restrictions imposed by President Bush in 2001. At least six states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Ohio — have approved state-funded stem cell research programs, including ESCR, to the tune of nearly $4 billion. At least four other states are debating bills or ballot initiatives to promote stem cell research. Missouri, for example, has an initiative on the November ballot that does not allocate taxpayer money to stem cell research, but does, through a constitutional amendment, guarantee scientists the freedom to conduct such research, including therapeutic cloning now referred to as "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT). In June 2006, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute announced that it will begin moving ahead with SCNT to obtain stem cells. And the list goes on.

It seems that society is moving inexorably toward a widespread acceptance of ESCR and, by implication, toward adoption of the belief that incipient human life can be sacrificed for possible health benefits for us, as well as for economic gain (a recurrent theme in the state initiatives). This movement is being fueled solely by promises and hopes, for ESCR has produced no treatments or cures in humans to date. Scientists are still trying to figure out how to manipulate and control ESCs; until they accomplish that, there is no possibility of cures. The scientific challenges are significant. Yet this reality is rarely mentioned by proponents of ESCR. They leave the impression that cures are around the corner. This further fuels the hopes and expectations of the public, as well as our willingness, as a society, to sacrifice the most vulnerable form of human life for our own purposes.

A Test of Moral Character
This is a critical time, if not a watershed moment, for our society. Our moral character is at issue in the choices we make. Surely, our concern for treating and curing diseases that inflict untold suffering on millions is a laudable goal and a display of compassion. But are we justified in doing anything to achieve this goal? Are there no limits? Is the relief of disability, disease, and suffering such an important human good that it trumps everything else, including early human life? Are we justified in destroying incipient human life as a means to achieve this good? Do we cross a moral bright line when we use vulnerable human life as a means to our own ends? And if we can justify doing it here, can we justify doing it elsewhere and with other vulnerable forms of human life?

Although what we owe incipient human life is a central consideration in this debate, it is not the only consideration. Also at issue are our beliefs about the place of disability, disease, and suffering in our lives; human finitude; limits; the extent of our obligation to treat disease and relieve suffering; what is understood by human progress; the pursuit of knowledge; the place of science in human life and society; the technological imperative; allocation of societal resources. This is a time not only for ballot casting, but also for careful reflection about what it is we are promoting and deciding about. Unfortunately, the careful reflection may not happen because we are swept away by the promises and the hopes. They tend to limit our vision, and a limited vision on such critical issues can have adverse effects on our moral character as individuals and as a society in the long run.

The growing acceptance of ESCR puts Catholic health care in a difficult position. The ministry is caught between its commitment to human life in all its forms, on one hand, and, on the other, its commitment to healing, the relief of suffering, medical progress, and the pressures of competition and economic stability. The pressure to become involved in ESCR will only increase. Together with these challenges, however, is an opportunity to witness to some fundamental beliefs — surely about human life, but also about the other beliefs noted above. There is an opportunity here to offer an alternate vision, a different set of priorities in a positive way.

It is also an opportunity to promote moral forms of stem cell research, namely, research using adult stem cells, including those from placenta and cord blood. These stem cells are in fact currently being used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions — Parkinson's, anemia and blood and liver diseases, multiple sclerosis, lupus and other immune diseases, juvenile diabetes and arthritis, and spinal cord injuries — and hold promise for treating many more.

An Initiative in New Jersey
An excellent example of what Catholic health care can do in this regard is occurring in New Jersey. The Catholic HealthCare Partnership of New Jersey (which represents New Jersey's 15 Catholic hospitals) together with the New Jersey Catholic Conference announced in June 2006 their support of adult stem cell research and their commitment to promote umbilical cord and placenta blood donation at all 15 New Jersey Catholic hospitals, in which more than 20,000 births take place annually.

The two organizations will work with the Catholic hospitals to educate pregnant women about umbilical cord and placenta blood donation, provide information about New Jersey's public collection facilities, and encourage donations by expectant mothers at the time of childbirth. Donations will provide more material for stem cell transplants as well as research. (For more information, see Catholic Health World, June 15, 2006, or contact Fr. Joseph Kukura, president of the Catholic HealthCare Partnership of New Jersey, at kukuraj@chcpnj.org). Such an excellent initiative and collaboration is worthy of consideration and implementation across the country.

The choices we make today will define us as individuals and as a society and will undoubtedly affect future generations in profound ways. Hopefully, they will be choices we will not one day regret.

Copyright © 2006 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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