President Barack Obama, at a Mar 9 White House ceremony, signs an executive order overturning the limits on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. The Catholic Church has long opposed such research because it relies on the destruction of human embryos. Advocates say the research may advance treatments and cures for deadly and debilitating diseases. CNS photo

Catholic leaders express dismay over the desire to push embryonic stem-cell research when adult stem-cell therapies have treated and even cured people of many debilitating conditions


WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s executive order reversing the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research represents “a sad victory of politics over science and ethics”, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia said shortly after the Mar 9 signing of the order at the White House.

The chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities was among Catholic, pro-life and other leaders who criticised the reversal, which Obama had promised during his campaign.

Speaking in the East Room of the White House, Obama said the stem-cell policy of former President George W. Bush, in effect since Aug 9, 2001, had forced “a false choice between sound science and moral values”.

Obama also urged Congress to consider further expansion of funding for such research. Since 1995, the Dickey/Wicker amendment to the annual appropriations bills for federal health programmes has barred federal funding of research involving the creation or destruction of human embryos.

But the president had strong words against human cloning, which he said is “dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society, or any society”. He said he would work to ensure that “our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction”.


Among the several dozen people present at the White House for the signing were members of Congress, scientists, families whose members had been or could be affected by stem-cell breakthroughs, and representatives of the Episcopal and United Methodist churches, several Jewish bodies and the Interfaith Alliance.

Obama said a “majority of Americans – from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs – have come to a consensus that we should pursue” embryonic stem-cell research.

But Cardinal Rigali said the executive order “disregards the values of millions of American taxpayers who oppose research that requires taking human life” and “ignores the fact that ethically sound means for advancing stem-cell science and medical treatments are readily available and in need of increased support”.

He reiterated points raised by Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, USCCB president, who said in a Jan 16 letter to Obama that a change in the policy on funding of embryonic stem-cell research “could be a terrible mistake – morally, politically and in terms of advancing the solidarity and well-being of our nation’s people”.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said most scientists recognise embryonic stem-cell research has not proved promising, which led him to wonder if economic interests might be driving the push to use embryos.

Most scientists have affirmed that “currently embryonic stem cells lead nowhere”, he told Vatican Radio on Mar 11, while “adult stem cells, on the other hand, have already led to the cure of some 2,000 diseases”.


People, therefore, should try to figure out “what special interests, probably of some pharmaceutical companies, are behind this ever more forcible interference in science and research and, in this case, in politics, too”, he said.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said allowing the use of public funds for embryonic stem-cell research was “without ethical or scientific justification”.

The decision to reverse the ban on federal funding was based on “utilitarian logic” that failed to take into account the fact that embryos are human beings, he told the Italian news agency ANSA on Mar 9.

“It’s about the destruction of human beings in order to turn them into material for experimentation,” he said.

Bishop Sgreccia said it was unclear why research on embryonic stem cells would need to be pursued now that new discoveries have been made with other kinds of stem cells.

He referred to the work of a Japanese biologist who found in 2007 that adult stem cells could easily be reprogrammed to an embryonic state.

At the White House, Obama said he “cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No president can promise that”.

“But I can promise that we will seek them – actively, responsibly and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground,” he added.

The Bush policy had allowed funding of embryonic stem-cell research only when the stem-cell line had been created before Aug 9, 2001. The executive order Obama signed permits federal funding of stem-cell lines created since then, but would not allow funding of the creation of new lines, leaving that decision to Congress.

Obama also signed a “presidential memorandum on scientific integrity” on Mar 9, ordering the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for ensuring that “the administration’s decisions about public policy be guided by the most accurate and objective scientific advice available”.

He said scientific advisers should be appointed “based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology”.

But Paul A. Long, vice president for public policy at the Michigan Catholic Conference, said the order “regrettably places ideology and political posturing ahead of proven scientific therapeutic advancements”.

“There are endless studies and stories of patients who have been treated, even cured of their debilitating condition following stem-cell therapies that do not necessitate the destruction of human embryos, yet the ... executive order makes every tax-paying American citizen unwittingly complicit in the destruction of human embryos for experimental research.”

“The president boldly proclaimed that he was taking the politics out of science,” Bishop Robert W. Finn said. “Rather, it seems clear that he is only asserting ‘his politics’ over life itself.”

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the author of a 2005 law authorising US$265 million in federal research funds for adult stem cells from cord blood and bone marrow, asked in a statement: “Why does the president persist in the dehumanising of nascent human life when better alternatives exist?”

“On both ethics grounds and efficacy grounds nonembryonic-destroying stem-cell research is the present and future of regenerative medicine – and the only responsible way forward,” Mr Smith added.

By Nancy Frazier O’Brien, cns
 

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