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Amid Fears, Embryonic Stem Cell Work Continues

Church Reminds Legislators of Moral Principles

BRUSSELS, Belgium, OCT. 18, 2003 ( Debates over human cloning inevitably touch on the question of research with embryonic stem cells. Experiments are continuing with both adult and embryonic stem cells, even as many countries debate legislation on the practice. The national parliaments of Spain and Canada are now considering draft laws that, in part, propose to allow research with embryonic stem cells.

Last summer the European Union released guidelines that contemplate allowing funds to be used for research with stem cells from frozen human embryos, the Associated Press reported July 9. The proposals published by the European Commission added that “the EU will not fund human embryonic stem cell research where it is forbidden.” A final decision on the proposals has not yet been taken.

Currently, Sweden, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands and Britain allow research with stem cells from frozen embryos. Germany allows such research only if the stem cells are imported and existed before Jan. 1, 2002. The European Commission also set a cutoff date, June 27, 2002, for when the embryos must have been created. The cutoff does not include the stem cell lines.

The proposals drew criticism from the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community. “Such research raises fundamental moral problems because it involves the destruction of human embryos,” COMECE said in a July 9 press release. COMECE argued that the decision on whether to provide financial support for research raises such serious moral concerns that it should be made by individual member states and that the European Union should refrain from joint financing of such research projects.

Meanwhile, Switzerland became the latest European country to approve embryonic stem cell research. The Swiss House of Representatives approved proposals to allow research on stem cells from “surplus” human embryos, Swissinfo reported Sept. 18.

The decision came after the Senate voted to let scientists use stem cells from embryos up to 7 days old. However, the House voted against destroying some 1,000 frozen embryos by year-end. The law prohibits the production of stem cells for research purposes, and trade in stem cells is banned.

Brave new England

Researchers in England are going ahead, backed by generous government funding. Late last year the government announced the world’s largest program of research, with 40 million pounds of funds ($66.7 million), the daily Telegraph reported Dec. 10. This amount is on top of 2.6 million pounds ($4.3 million) to be spent on building a national stem cell bank cells, which tops off another 7 million ($11.6 million) already spent in 2002 on the project.

King’s College London announced it has developed a line of stem cells grown from a human embryo, BBC reported Aug. 13. Professor Peter Braude, who led the research team, told BBC that the breakthrough of a “bank” of stem cells would greatly help research in the United Kingdom. There are around a dozen lines of such cells available to researchers in the world, BBC said.

But Dr. Helen Watt of the Linacre Center said the research violated the human rights and interests of the embryos. “This [research] is compounding the injustice of what we do to these embryos by attempting to turn them into pharmaceutical products,” Watt lamented. The Linacre Center advises the Catholic Church on bioethics.

News of a recent experiment in China bore out Watt’s fears. A team of scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University fused human cells with rabbit eggs to produce stem cells, the Associated Press reported Sept. 23.

The scientists removed the nuclei, which contains the DNA, from the rabbit eggs. They then introduced DNA from human skin cells. The resulting embryos were clones of the human donors, although they were never intended to develop into babies. After about a week, researchers were able to obtain stem cells from the embryos.

Results of the study were published in Cell Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences. China is investing aggressively in biotech research, AP reported. Last year the country’s spending on biotech totaled $272.4 million.

End run in U.S.

In the United States, the federal government’s restrictions are being circumvented at the state level. California recently approved embryonic stem cell research, joining 11 other states that have their own legislation, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Sept. 25. In August 2001, President George Bush restricted federally funded research to the then existing set of stem-cell lines.

The federal government itself recently announced funding for research. The National Institutes of Health announced three grants totaling $6.3 million for researchers to examine human embryonic stem cells, Reuters reported Sept. 29.

On June 12, Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, addressed the President’s Council on Bioethics on the question of embryo research. He defended the need for ethical limits in this area.

Doerflinger warned that a research enterprise driven simply by a utilitarian calculus of “the end justifies the means” falls into the error of exploiting humans. Ethical research, he insisted, entails that there be no unnecessary risk to human subjects; that the subject has given voluntary and informed consent; and that serious injury or death in the name of medical knowledge be avoided.

As to the argument that embryonic stem cell research is justified because it might help suffering patients, Doerflinger explained that that is not the only ethical norm to be considered. Equally valid is the principle that one should not harm or exploit human life in the service of such positive goals. “One cannot ethically kill one innocent human being on the grounds that this may produce results that could save the lives of several human beings,” he said.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research, however, argue that a seeming blob of cells has nothing particularly human about it. Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo refutes this point in an Aug. 9 article he wrote for L’Osservatore Romano on cloning.

The president of the Pontifical Council for the Family cited scientific research that explains how the development of the embryo is a coordinated sequence that takes place under the guidance of the new human genome. There is thus a coherent unity present, not just a mere collection of cells. He noted that Dr. Ian Wilmut, who cloned the sheep Dolly, supports this argument. He quoted Wilmut, who said: “When an embryo is created, an automatic-pilot takes over its initial development.”

Moreover during the various stages of development there is both continuity and gradualness, with no point of radical change that would indicate a qualitative change from something nonhuman to human. “The abusive introduction of the term pre-embryo was a trick to pacify consciences and allow experimentation until the end of the stage of implantation,” argued Cardinal López Trujillo.

And if the embryo in its early stages is not human, then what is it? asked the cardinal. To what animal species does it belong, given that it has a human genome? Those in favor of stem cell research with human embryos have no convincing answer to these and other questions.

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