Amid ongoing controversy about public funding of stem-cell research, the bishops of New York state are urging Catholics to educate themselves about this research and the church’s position on it. In a June 24 letter to New York’s faithful, the leaders of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses — and those of two Eastern Rite eparchies that cover the state — also call upon their followers to express their views on the matter to their elected representatives.
Locally, parish leaders are encouraged to help parishioners learn more about stem-cell research during October, which the church marks as Respect Life Month. The bishops’ letter was the first component in a Stem Cell Resource Guide created by the staff of the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s eight Roman Catholic bishops in matters of public policy. Approved by the bishops in June, the guide was distributed to parishes within the Diocese of Rochester in late September.
Catholics need to learn about this topic because it’s been all over the news in recent months, and related legislation is pending at the state and federal levels, said Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the state Catholic conference and director of the Catholic Advocacy Network.
“Stem-cell research is making the headlines these days, and it’s much misunderstood. I think the general feeling out there is that the Catholic Church is opposed to all of this,” Gallagher said.
Yet the church does not unequivocally oppose all stem-cell research. In fact, it supports some types of stem-cell research just as strongly as it opposes others. In order to understand the church’s position, it’s necessary first to distinguish between the two primary types of stem-cell research, and the resource guide is intended to help parishioners do just that, Gallagher said.
“Education is very important because there is so much hype around this, from both sides. It’s hard to sort out opinion from science,” said Jann Armantrout, life-issues coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester.
Understanding stem cells
According to the National Institutes of Health, stem cells are unspecialized cells that renew themselves for long periods through cell division. Under certain conditions, these cells can become cells of another type, even if that new type has a special function, such as producing insulin in the pancreas.
Scientists hope to use stem cells to test new drugs and cell-based therapies. These cells offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues that could be used to treat a number of maladies, including spinal-cord injuries as well as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and heart diseases.
There are two basic types of human stem cells. So-called “adult” stem cells are found in children and adults. Although they are found among the specialized cells of tissues and organs — which they serve to maintain and repair — these cells have not yet become specialized cell types. They can renew themselves and differentiate, or become specialized cells of the type found in the organ or tissue they reside in, according to NIH.
Adult stem cells were discovered in bone marrow during the 1960s, but human embryonic stem cells weren’t isolated until 1998. Embryonic stem cells are taken from embryos, which are usually only a few days old. The Stem Cell Resource Guide notes that removing the inner stem cells from an embryo causes the embryo to die.
Embryonic stem-cell lines are stem cells that have been cultured under in-vitro conditions allowing them to proliferate without differentiating for months or years, according to NIH. Thus far, these lines have mainly been derived from “leftover” embryos stored in freezers at fertility clinics. But there aren’t enough of such embryos to yield sufficient cell lines for research purposes, so scientists want to create embryos through cloning, which researchers often call somatic cell nuclear transfer, the guide states.
The church’s view
The church opposes embryonic stem-cell research because it always involves the destruction of a live human embryo, which the guide points out is an innocent human being with an inalienable right to live. The church also is morally opposed to human cloning because it would create — and then destroy — a human life, Armantrout said.
“The cloning of human beings is morally unacceptable by reason of natural law. Moreover, the destruction of human embryos — whether they are manufactured by cloning or in-vitro fertilization techniques — is ethically unacceptable and we remain unalterably opposed to any legislation that promotes such destruction,” the bishops’ letter states.
On the other hand, the Catholic Church is a staunch supporter of adult stem-cell research because the cells for this research can be gathered without harming any individual. Although the Catholic Church is the largest nonprofit health-care provider in the state, people are often shocked to learn that many Catholic institutions are in the forefront of progress in adult stem-cell research, Gallagher said.
Research on embryonic stem cells thus far has not produced any cures or improvements in the lives of human patients, Armantrout noted, but adult stem cells have already benefitted a number of patients. The guide singles out three individuals — including a cancer patient from Owego, Tioga County — who have been successfully treated with their own adult stem cells. Stem cells from umbilical-cord blood and bone marrow are also being used to fight disease, the guide notes.
By contrast, embryonic stem-cell research is not only morally unacceptable, it also is fiscally irresponsible, Armantrout observed..
“If you look at resource allocation, do we want to put it into something that’s a wish and a ‘maybe in 10 or 20 years,’ or do we want to invest in something that’s showing demonstrable improvements in people’s lives now?” she asked.
Catholics need to inform themselves about stem-cell research because legislation about this issue is pending at both the federal and state levels, Gallagher added.
“At all levels of government … lawmakers are discussing and debating and deciding things like whether our tax dollars should fund human cloning and embryonic (stem-cell) research and adult stem-cell research,” she said.
The U.S. Senate may vote before the end of October on the Human Cloning Prohibition Act (S.658), which would prohibit the cloning of human embryos, according to the National Right to Life Committee. The Senate may soon vote on another bill that would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to conduct and support embryonic stem-cell research projects meeting certain ethical criteria.
Although the New York State Legislature is not in session right now, several bills related to stem-cell research also are pending before that body and could come to votes as soon as January, Gallagher said. Bills A.6300 and S.5714-A would both permit and fund embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning for research purposes, allocating $125 million to $300 million in state funds.
Several bills promoting the study of stem cells found in umbilical-cord blood — which the Catholic conference supports — also are pending, Gallagher added.
Once Catholics familiarize themselves with the issues, they need to make their views known to their legislators, Gallagher and Armantrout agreed.
The Catholic conference’s Web site — www.nyscatholic.org — provides drafts of letters that can be sent to elected representatives. Visitors to the site may edit those letters or simply sign their names to them as is, and the letters will be automatically sent to the appropriate representatives, Gallagher said. The resource guide includes a list of local, upcoming educational opportunities related to stem-cell research.