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The Stem Cell Debate
By Mary Udry

“Government has no business forcing taxpayers to become complicit in the direct destruction of human life at any stage. Nor is there any point in denying the scientific fact that human life is exactly what is at stake here.”

– Cardinal William H. Keeler

The debate on stem cell research among scientists, politicians, ethicists and clergy is often as rancorous as it is confusing. The only thing all parties seem to agree upon is there is no “magic bullet” gene therapy on the horizon, only the promise that further research may someday provide one.

And therein lies the problem: navigating the minefield of ethics, science, religion and politics to strike a balance between preserving budding lives and saving existing ones.

The Catholic Church vigorously supports and encourages adult stem cell research and strongly opposes research, for any purpose that destroys innocent human life.

A stem cell is a relatively unspecialized cell that, when it divides, can do two things: make another cell like itself, or make any of a number of cells with more specialized functions.

Adult stem cells are commonly obtained from umbilical cord blood, placentas and other adult tissues. Research has shown they exist in many more types of tissue than previously thought. They are “multipotent,” meaning that with the right laboratory conditions, certain kinds of adult stem cells can give rise to a great number of cell types in the body. They have been used to help people with Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, sickle-cell anemia, heart damage, corneal damage and dozens of other conditions.

Embryonic stem cells are considered “pluripotent,” meaning they are capable of producing nearly all cell types in the human body, which, geneticists say, makes them more versatile than multipotent adult stem cells. However, the only way currently to harvest these pluripotent cells is by destroying living human embryos.

Some in the scientific community believe embryonic stem cell research and testing is the wave of the future, but so far such optimism is rooted more in theory than actual laboratory results. However, it is research and testing using adult stem cells that have yielded proven results and actually benefited patients needing treatment now.

“The benefits derived from embryonic stem cells are entirely hypothetical,” says Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “Research scientists have yet to conclusively prove gene therapy using these cells will ever benefit mankind.”

Cardinal William H. Keeler, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities, has urged the U.S. Senate to support legislation promoting research and treatment using stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood.

“Umbilical cord blood stem cells have successfully treated thousands of patients with dozens of diseases,” Cardinal Keeler says. “They also exhibit properties once associated chiefly with embryonic stem cells: They grow rapidly in culture, producing enough cells to be clinically useful in both children and adults; they can treat patients who are not an exact genetic match, without being rejected as foreign tissue; and they seem able to produce a wide variety of different cell types.”

Cardinal Keeler notes that a simple lack of funding, not ethics or lack of clinical evidence is the roadblock in large-scale use of this type of treatment. “By helping to establish a nationwide public cord blood bank, this legislation will begin saving more lives almost immediately,” says Cardinal Keeler. By contrast, he says, scientists are now warning against ‘false expectations’ regarding embryonic stem cells, pointing out that clinical use of those cells might be ‘three to five decades’ away. (Scientist: Stem Cell Work Will Aid Humans, AP, May 22, 2005)

Legislation introduced earlier this summer in the U.S. House would serve to narrow the chasm between researchers and ethicists regarding embryonic stem cell research.

H.R. 3144, the “Respect for Life Pluripotent Stem Cell Act of 2005,” introduced by Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) would provide $15 million in fiscal 2006 to fund alternative pluripotent cell research, with additional funding through 2010.

Bartlett, a former research scientist and medical school professor, is the only congressman with a master’s and doctorate in physiology. His proposed legislation is consistent with President George Bush’s support for stem cell research that doesn’t destroy human embryos.

The bill proposes three types of research to produce pluripotent stem cells: use of animal embryos to develop and test techniques in extracting cells without harming embryos, further studies testing harvesting pluripotent stem cells from adult stem cells, and research on the production of pluripotent stem cells without creating or destroying embryos. The bill would prohibit any research that involves the use of human embryos.

In his July 12 letter on the “Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005,” Cardinal Keeler noted “this bill relates to an area of stem cell research and treatment that is indisputably acceptable on moral grounds and remarkably promising in terms of clinical benefits: the use of umbilical cord blood retrieved immediately after live births.”

“We know that the key biological difference between an adult body cell and a new embryo is not the gnome, but the pattern of gene expression,” said Doerflinger.

“Scientists now know of certain factors that can activate the pattern of gene expression found only in pluripotent stem cells and not in completely specialized cells or the early embryo. So altering a body cell and an egg before they are joined should produce a cell that is no longer a specialized body cell, but is also easily distinguishable from the whole organism that is a human embryo,” he said.

If such research is indeed successful, scientists and ethicists could begin to mend their rift on the stem cell debate. Science would have a powerful weapon in the fight against disease; ethicists would join the battle as a willing and vocal ally.

4 Ways You Can Advance the Cause for Research Ethics

1. Educate yourself on the basics of stem cell research.

2. Educate and inform public policy makers and the general public regarding ethically acceptable and medically promising areas of research and treatment.

3. Support the continuation of federal laws prohibiting the federal funding of research that requires the destruction of human life, including the human embryo.

4. Talk to your friends, neighbors and co-workers – individual persuasion can be very powerful.


Fact sheets and articles on Stem Cell Research and Human Cloning by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Visit:

Consumer’s Guide to the Brave New World by Wesley J. Smith ( This new essential book addresses all the key issues in order to provide a clear understanding of what’s at stake in the public policy debate over human stem-cell research and cloning.

The Family Research Council’s Center for Human Life and Bioethics website:

Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics website: