Thursday, May 26, 2005

ignorance on embryonic stem cells is prevalent in the U.S. Congress

So I was watching a re-broadcast of the news conference Wednesday featuring a few senators and House representatives who are in favor of a bill that would expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research using excess embryos created through fertility treatments. By 238-194, the House on Tuesday passed House Resolution (HR) 810--called the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act--which will authorize the federal funding of stem cell research which requires the destruction of human embryos.

This bill was brought to the senate on Wednesday which is the occasion for the news conference. Watching it, I was dismayed by what I heard coming from the mouths of these lawmakers. First up was Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) who was basically lauding the benefits of embryonic stem cell research as a means of finding cure for crippling diseases. He also kept repeating the point that the embryos that will be used for this type of research will be coming from surplus embryos from in-vitro fertilizations, which will be destroyed anyway, so why not use them for good and cure diseases.

Next was Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) who derided those who wrongly said that a consequence of this type of research is the "dismemberment" of body parts, presumably from fetuses for their stem cells. Then he raised a writing pad, took his fountain pen, and punched a hole into the pad showing that that's just about the size of the embryos whose stem cells will be used for research. There will be no dismemberment or anything of the sort, as these are simple cells, Harkin said.

Then there was Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who said that he actually talked to several people about this such as patient-advocate groups, scientists, religious leaders, and others, and that he prayed about this issue. He says quite shockingly that he has come to the conclusion that "human life does not begin in a petrie dish" but in the mother's womb. He also made a point during the question-and-answer portion of the conference that we as a nation spend millions of dollars on Medicare and Medicaid. Think of the savings that will come when we have found cures for these diseases, he says.

Then comes Diane Feinstein (D-California), the senior senator from California I am not proud to say. She takes home the biscuit for saying that these embryonic cells are merely cells: we shed skin cells everyday, and so we basically shouldn't be too hung up on utilizing these simple embryonic cells for research that will cure illnesses. I have never shouted at a TV set in my life, but I did so this evening. Feinstein has the distinction of being the first person to have made me do that.

The ignorance displayed at this news conference was simply staggering. If that is the fruit of the background research these lawmakers have done on a very important issue concerning life, death, and bioethics, then I shudder as I realize the pathetic political leadership our nation has.

The American bishops have responded to the House's vote through Richard M. Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. He too identified the atrocious ignorance displayed by these lawmakers: "the floor debate showed an appalling degree of ignorance and confusion on the issue among those voting for this bill, indicating the educational challenge to be addressed before the House votes on this issue again. Some even said that embryonic stem cells have a proven ability to cure patients and that adult stem cells do not, whereas exactly the opposite is true.”

In addition to ignorance, there is also a disturbing lack of proper priorities displayed. Hatch's assertion about money was quite shocking because he places money and finances ahead of concerns for the bioethical issues involved. Specter's point about the use of embryos from in-vitro fertilizations that will be destroyed anyway, is something that should be addressed at length I feel by those who oppose embryonic stem cell research.

Basically his position has a very utilitarian regard for these embryos, which philosophically, biologically, and logically are considered human lives and therefore are the bearers of human rights. To terminate the lives of these human embryos for the chance of a cure, violates the moral principle that "human life cannot be taken for the service of another." In other words, this is murder.

Plus, making promises to those who are ill that cure is on the way is really a disservice to them. If there is any cure that will come about from the use of embryonic stem cell research, it will most likely come after decades of research. It's not as if a cure will come upon us within a year or so.

And additionally, there are many disadvantages to using embryonic stem cells. According to Rev. Dr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, embryonic stem cells are difficult to differentiate uniformly and homogeneously into a target tissue; secondly, embryonic stem cells from a random embryo donor are likely to be rejected after transplantation, making the use of these embryonic stem cells of no use; and thirdly, embryonic stem cells are capable of forming tumors or promoting tumor formation, thereby causing more harm than good.

Therefore it is a grave disservice to our sick and ill to mouth off promises to them of cures which may be decades away and which may never even come about. Maybe those lawmakers on TV were sincerely concerned for the sick, but in the face of empirical data, their solution sadly is misguided and may cause more harm than good.

Now, back to in-vitro fertilization: the Church opposes the use of in-vitro fertilizations to produce pregnancies (stay tuned for a future post outlining why the Church opposes in-vitro fertilizations). The fact that these embryos will be discarded anyway does not give us moral license to utilize these embryos that will bring about their termination, even if the purpose were for the chance of a cure: the end doesn't justify the means.

So, what will happen to these thousands of embryos from in-vitro fertilizations whose development is in suspension in fertility clinics? The BBC reports one of the activities of President Bush on Tuesday at "a public appearance surrounded by children who would not have been born but for frozen embryos donated by one couple to another." Bush said, "These lives are not raw material to be exploited, but gifts."

That shows that if there's a will to save these frozen embryos, there's a way.

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