PPL responds to President Bush's decision on federal funding for stem cell research PDF Print E-mail

Posted August 15, 2001

by Terry Schlossberg

The 213th General Assembly (2001) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) endorsed killing human embryos for stem cell research. In early August, the United Methodist Church joined the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention--the three largest U.S. denominations--in opposing research that destroys human embryos. <article>

Thursday night, August 9, President George Bush announced his decision to permit the use of federal funds for research using stem cells from noncontroversial sources such as umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow. He also indicated that he would not allow federal funding for stem cell research that involved the killing of embryos, or for work on cell lines derived from embryos killed after the date of his announcement. We applaud the President's intention to show compassion for people suffering from terrible diseases which may be alleviated through applications of stem cell research and to show respect for human life from the earliest stages of development. However, we express our strong opposition to his decision to permit federal funding of research on stem cell lines derived from embryos which have already been destroyed for research purposes in private laboratories.

The response from pro-life/pro-family organizations to the President's decision has been described as "mixed," but may be the sharpest division in history among those groups. Newspaper reports and press releases in the days following his announcement included praise for the President's decision by spokespersons for The National Right to Life Committee, Focus on the Family, and Jerry Falwell. Those issuing sharply critical statements included the Family Research Council and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The former groups noted that the decision protects human life by limiting funding to existing stem cell lines so that federal dollars will not be tainted by killing embryos to obtain stem cells. The latter groups saw no important distinction, since the existing stem cells required the deaths of embryos. These two sets of voices represent the restraining side of the debate over using stem cells from embryos for research.

President Bush told the nation he listened to voices on both sides of the debate as he thought through his decision. His decision, he told us, was an effort to reflect both his commitment to the advancement of scientific research and discovery and his commitment to the protection of human life. Commitment to principle, however, doesn't always result in proper application in decision making, even when the intent is worthy.

We should be asking what will happen down the road as a result of this decision. If researchers discover healing potential in stem cells from embryos, should we then expect widespread creation of embryos for the purpose of killing them to extract their life-saving stem cells? Is that implicit in this first action?

The fact that federal funding for research does not pay for the killing of the embryos who will provide the stem cells does not protect us from the moral weight of the reality that experiments with embryo stem cells require killing embryos. Although clearly not the intent of Bush's decision, the decision opens the way for the sacrifice of some innocent human beings for the sake of other human beings and leads us toward moral darkness.

We need to remember our repugnance at the medical experimentation on those destined to die anyway in Japan's prisoner of war camps and Germany's concentration camps during World War II. We need to remind ourselves that we would find it morally unthinkable to kill those innocent human beings for research purposes even if the experiments held promise for curing Parkinson's, diabetes, ALS, or Alzheimers. If we were to discover today that human tissue from those prisoners had been frozen and was now available to us for experimentation, would we find its use less morally repugnant? As the Apostle Paul asks rhetorically in his letter to the Romans, shall we think we can accomplish some good purpose by committing or tolerating evil acts (Romans 3:8)?

At the heart of this issue is the question of what constitutes a human life and under what conditions a human life is not to be protected. For Christians it is a question of the application of biblical teaching. Each one of us began our lives as a fertilized ovum. It is the way God designed us. God tells us in Scripture that he knew us before we were in the womb, and that he ordained our days before one of them began (Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139:16).

A recent statement by Princeton University Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George serves to elaborate on the meaning of these passages. He said human embryos are:

"whole, living members of the human species...capable of directing from within their own integral organic functioning and development into and through the fetal, infant, child and adolescent stages of life and ultimately into adulthood. [The being that is] now you or me is the same being that was once an adolescent and before that a toddler and before that an infant and before that a fetus and before that an embryo."

Stem cell research is a new frontier. We do not know where it might go. We do know that research has found very promising preliminary outcomes in trials with post-birth stem cells derived from sources that do not kill human beings, such as umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, and human fat. We in Presbyterians Pro-Life believe that potentially life-saving research should be heartily approved by the Christian Church. But we stand with the Church's historical proclamation of the biblical message that each human life is created in the image of God and is to be protected and nurtured--from the moment of its creation. To seek a cure of even the most horrible diseases at the price of killing an innocent human being to obtain that cure is a path God forbids us to take.



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