Ruling against embryonic stem cell research grants wins praise

NCBC ethicist Edward Furton
NCBC ethicist Edward Furton


Two ethicists have praised a court’s ruling that the Obama administration’s federal funding policy for human embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is illegal, saying it upholds the ethical treatment of human beings. However, they warned that the ruling would prompt further political challenges to the funding restrictions.

On Monday U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth said the funding violated the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits federal money for research in which an embryo is destroyed.

The 17,000-member Christian Medical Association (CMA) was one of the plaintiffs in the legal case, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“People forget that each one of us was an embryo, and if someone destroyed us for biological parts, we wouldn't be around today,” CMA executive director David Stevens commented in support of the ruling.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), claimed that the ruling “has the potential to do serious damage just at a time we were gaining momentum” in stem cell research. He and other scientists who back ESCR claim the ruling will put the United States at a disadvantage.

ESCR scientists have already received $131 million in grants and can continue to use the money until it runs out. However, the NIH has abandoned its planned review of new grant applications and will not proceed with a second-level review of about a dozen other applications. A review of another 22 grant applications totaling $54 million is also on hold, the Journal says.

Because human embryonic stem cells are sometimes used as a “control” to judge the success of other stem cell research, the Journal reports, the ruling could also affect research focused on adult stem cell alternatives.

CNA spoke about the ruling in two separate Wednesday interviews with Edward J. Furton, an ethicist on the staff of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), and Fr. Thomas Berg, director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person.

Furton thought the decision was “a great court ruling.” He said that Judge Lamberth recognized a contradiction between the Obama administration’s willingness to fund the research and its pledge to treat human embryos with the kind of respect that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment requires.

“Judge Lamberth simply says you can’t separate these two events. You can’t say ‘as long as somebody else destroys the embryo, we’re happy to fund the destruction of the embryo.’

“The destruction of the embryo is an essential part of the research.”

Fr. Berg said he thought the court “correctly interpreted the intention of Congress in the original wording of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.”

“The decision was spot on.”

In his view, the amendment was intended to disallow all federal funding for research that causes, brings about or involves the destruction of human embryos. However, subsequent loopholes were created to obscure that intention.

Asked about continued challenges to the amendment, which Congress must renew annually, the priest said that the amendment had been “in the crosshairs” of many entities and legislators who “see it as an obstacle to much easier funding.”

The court ruling is “certainly” going to prompt further attempts to block the amendment, he predicted.

“My sense is the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is certainly more in danger now than it ever has been,” he continued, recommending that pro-life advocates “really need to speak very clearly and loudly to our representatives and let them know we want to preserve Dickey-Wicker.

Fr. Berg said the amendment arguably reflects the views of a majority of Americans, referring to a 2009 poll which reported that most Americans do not want their taxpayer dollars to fund the destruction of human embryos.

Furton addressed Collins’ claim that the ruling could do “serious damage” to embryonic stem cell research.

“There’s a lot of money at stake, hundreds of millions of dollars,” he told CNA. “There hasn’t been much momentum on ESCR, it’s been very slow going.

According to Furton, alternatives such as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell research have attracted “all the research money” from the business community and are “making great strides.”

The ethicist said that ESCR therapy is “plagued” by inherent and unsolved problems like immune system incompatibility, uncontrollable cell growth and the creation of tumors.

“The adult stem cells are much easier to direct down a particular path,” he explained. “If you’re looking for cures for diseases, then adult stem cells are the way to go.”

He deemed claims about the potential use of embryonic stem cells to be “highly theoretical and speculative.”

Asked about the description of embryo-derived stem cells as the “gold standard,” Furton said it was an “odd” expression but “understandable from a scientific standpoint” because other stem cells are compared to the embryonic cells to see if they have the same properties.

“If your gold standard is the human embryo, then it is the so-called gold standard. But it is funny that you have a gold standard that doesn’t seem to work very well.”

The Westchester Institute’s Fr. Berg addressed the ethical objections to ESCR funding, saying the practice is “complicity in the destruction of individual, embryonic human persons.”

Asked about objections to the claim that the embryo is a person, he replied:

“You were once an embryo. That’s a simple matter of scientific and biological facts … In a way, we cannot become something that we aren’t already. An acorn is not going to grow up to be a birch tree, it can only become an oak tree.

“The human embryo is already a human being. It is already a human person at an early stage of development. The arbitrary isolation of that embryonic stage has no logical footing to stand on,” he continued, opposing the claim that embryos aren’t persons but “somehow” become persons at some other time.

“The fact that a human embryo is a member of the species homo sapiens is a simple matter of biology, it’s not a religious statement.

Furton also discussed the origin of the individual human being, saying the human person begins when sperm and ovum meet.

“You and I were both human embryos at one point. If those embryos were destroyed we wouldn’t be here today,” he told CNA.

 “Killing a human being, no matter what advances you might gain from it, is not sufficient reason for carrying out such an act.

“Human life is sacred and ought to be treated that way by the scientific community,” Furton stated.

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