Embryonic research at issue in N.Y. vote - Catholic Courier

Embryonic research at issue in N.Y. vote

No matter who becomes New York’s next governor, he probably will be at odds with the Catholic Church on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research.

The two leading candidates — Democrat Eliot Spitzer and Republican John Faso — both support embryonic stem-cell research, although Spitzer, unlike Faso, wants the state to spend millions to promote it. Representatives of Tom Suozzi, Spitzer’s opponent in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, did not return multiple phone messages left at the candidate’s campaign headquarters, asking for his position on the issue.

Spitzer and running mate David Paterson have vowed to make embryonic stem-cell research a government priority if they win this November. Both men have proposed a voter referendum on a $1 billion bond to fund embryonic stem-cell research. If voters approve the plan, such research will be the “centerpiece of our health-care policy,” according to information from the Spitzer campaign.

Josh Bills, spokesman for Faso’s campaign, said his candidate “supports embryonic stem-cell research under strict, ethical peer-reviewed guidelines,” though he did not clarify what those guidelines would be. However, Bills noted that Faso does not support the Spitzer/Paterson proposal to fund embryonic stem-cell research because the state is already in debt and shouldn’t take on more.

Stem cells are master cells formed shortly after fertilization. These cells can develop into all the body’s various cell types — including brain, blood, muscle or skin — and some stem cells also remain present in the bodies of adults and children. A number of scientists want to collect stem cells from surplus embryos created for in-vitro fertilization and use them for treatment of diseases. The Catholic Church opposes using embryonic stem cells for treatment, but does support using for treatments or research adult stem cells — which are found in the bodies of adults and children — and those from umbilical-cord blood (see related story on page A7).

A poll released in June by Quinnipiac University shows Spitzer with a commanding lead over his opponents in the governor’s race; 66 percent of those polled saying they would vote for Spitzer.

Spitzer’s campaign staff told the Catholic Courier that if he is elected governor, Spitzer’s administration “will pass legislation to regulate stem-cell research, and we will allocate and direct hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to hospitals, laboratories and researchers (for) research on the cutting edges of scientific technology and medical innovation.”

According to the campaign’s statement, Spitzer would ban “reproductive cloning,” which the National Catholic Biothethics Center in Philadelphia defines as a procedure through which cloned embryos are created and then implanted in a woman’s womb so that the embryo can eventually be born.

However, the Spitzer campaign does support “somatic cell nuclear transfer” — the transfer of the nucleus of a human cell, other than a sperm or an egg cell, into an unfertilized egg. This process is identical to that of reproductive cloning, except that the resulting embryo is not implanted in a womb, the NCBC notes. The embryo’s stem cells are then harvested for use, destroying the embryo. The church opposes this procedure — sometimes called “therapeutic cloning” — because it results in the creation and destruction of an embryo.

Voters’ views

In May, a poll commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops showed that 48 percent of Americans oppose federal funding for stem-cell research that involves destroying human embryos. The poll also found that 57 percent favored funding research that does not harm the stem-cell donor — in other words, research on stem cells derived from adults and umbillical-cord blood. The poll also indicated that more than 80 percent of Americans oppose creating embryos specifically for research or to provide children for infertile couples.

Embryo-research advocates, including the New York Stem Cell Foundation, commissioned their own poll, the results of which were released in March. Their data showed that 84 percent or more of New York residents expressed much or some support for embryonic stem-cell research. However, Kathleen M. Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, questioned taking the poll’s results seriously.

“This biased poll did not question voters about alternatives to embryonic stem-cell research, such as adult stem-cell research and umbilical cord-blood research,” said Gallagher, whose conference is the public-policy arm of New York state’s eight bishops.

She said it would be interesting to see how New Yorkers would respond if given a choice between embryonic stem-cell research and ethical alternatives based on the use of adult or cord-blood stem cells.

Jann Armantrout, life-issues coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester, said no public-policy issue promoted by the diocese has elicited as strong a response from diocesan Catholics as embryonic stem-cell research. Last March, she noted, the diocese delivered to state legislators petitions signed by 13,500 Catholics in 67 faith communities, urging the legislators to promote research on adult stem cells and to prohibit embryonic stem-cell research.

“That was the largest number of signatures we’ve ever had and the highest percentage of participating parishes,” she said.

Potential payoff

The Spitzer campaign is embracing embryonic stem-cell research not only because it may hold long-term potential for the cure of various diseases, but also because of its potential to create a multibillion-dollar industry in New York. To buttress its point, the campaign claimed that investment in “life sciences” could yield a total of 15,000 new jobs by 2012 and approximately $307 million in tax revenue for the state.

Many of New York’s leading universities and medical centers — including Cornell University, the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology — also are pushing embryonic stem-cell research. In February, the universities and medical centers released the white paper “New York and Stem Cell Research: A Scientific, Policy and Economic Analysis,” warning that New York may be left in the biomedical dust if it doesn’t soon join the race to fund embryonic stem-cell research.

The document points out that California voters approved a $3 billion stem-cell research fund and that several other states have established or are preparing to establish similar funds. Such states could “become magnets for scientists, biotech industry and venture capital,” the paper states.

“(I)f the state fails to invest public funds in stem cell research it will begin to lose its most talented scientists and the biomedical research conducted at its universities and institutes will suffer and ultimately decline,” the universities and medical centers warned.

In response, Armantrout drafted a paper for the Diocese of Rochester’s Public Policy Committee, titled “A Closer Look: Examining the Issues in ‘New York and Stem Cell Research.'” Her document argues that the universities’ white paper overstates the potentially positive impact of embryonic stem-cell research and understates the potential of positive experimental procedures using adult stem cells. Armantrout’s paper also dismisses the universities’ argument that the state will lose scientists to other states that choose to fund embryonic research.

“The white paper provides no evidence of ‘brain drain’ not even anecdotally,” she wrote. “States identified as competitors for New York’s scientists are not necessarily providing opportunities that would entice researchers to relinquish their ties to institutions and their communities.”

More importantly, Armantrout noted that embryonic stem-cell research “signals a fundamental change in our cultural values.”

“Foundational ideas such as the requirement to respect the dignity of every human being are abandoned,” she wrote.

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