In mid-May the Empire State Stem Cell Board released for public review a draft of its strategic plan, which describes how the board plans to use $300 million in state funds over the next five years. Terming some research proposed by the plan “morally troubling,” the New York State Catholic Conference is urging Catholics to voice concerns.
“The draft plan provides a legal basis for funding research using human embryos,” diocesan life-issues coordinator Jann Armantrout wrote in a June 2 letter to diocesan parishes.
The stem-cell board was established when the 2007-08 state budget committed $600 million in state funds to the newly created Empire State Stem Cell Trust Fund to support stem-cell research over the next 11 years. Bishop Matthew H. Clark already has voiced his concerns about this funding through a video posted at the Web site of the Rochester-based advocacy group Adult Stem Cell Initiative Inc.
The draft strategic plan, which may be found at the Web site of NYSTEM (New York State Stem Cell Science), outlines the ways in which half of that funding may be used during the next five years. It indicates that 65 to 80 percent of that $300 million will go to “innovative basic, translational and clinical research that builds on the potential of stem cells to detect, treat and cure human diseases.” Ten to 15 percent of the money will go to expanding stem-cell-research capacity in New York, and 4 to 10 percent will be used to train new and established researchers.
The draft plan allocates 3 to 5 percent of the $300 million to address ethical, legal and social issues and education on these issues, while 3 to 5 percent will be used for the administration and management of the trust fund.
In the May 21 edition of its “New York State Pro-Life Reporter” newsletter, the Catholic conference applauds the draft plan for recognizing the potential of research on reprogramming of adult body cells and the use of umbilical-cord blood and other nonembryonic sources of stem cells. This research can be conducted without destroying human embryos and therefore without destroying human life, noted the conference, which is the public-policy arm of the state’s bishops.
Of concern, however, is the draft plan’s emphasis on and encouragement of human embryonic stem-cell research, the newsletter says. The draft plan aggressively pursues this research using both frozen embryos created through in-vitro-fertilization techniques and embryos created specifically for research.
“Although the plan permits the funds to be used for stem-cell research that uses ethically derived stem cells, the type of stem-cell research that is already producing medical treatments for patients with devastating disease, there is a bias in the draft strategic plan to fund research that destroys human embryos,” Armantrout said in her letter.
According to the Catholic conference, the draft plan also includes funding for infrastructure, resources and facilities specifically devoted to embryonic stem-cell research, thus encouraging scientists to engage in this type of research. The conference said the draft plan also opens the door to state taxpayer funding for somatic cell nuclear transfer — human cloning intended to create embryos for research — and allows funding for the creation of chimeras, or organisms that have tissues from several different species, provided that the resulting organisms are not bred.
In an action alert e-mailed May 27, the conference’s Catholic Advocacy Network asked recipients to voice these and other concerns to the Empire State Stem Cell Board.
“The ethics committee of the Stem Cell Board unanimously recommended a brief moratorium on this controversial research in order to have a serious dialogue about ethics and to develop ethical standards,” the e-mail alert said. “But the funding committee rejected that recommendation.”
Several state senators hoped to remedy this problem by introducing S. 08401 to the state Senate June 4, noted Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the Catholic conference and director of the Catholic Advocacy Network.
“We have just succeeded in getting legislation introduced to give the ethics committee of the Stem Cell Board a real voice. Right now it is advisory only, and pretty much ignored on critical matters,” Gallagher said. “This bill will allow the ethics committee to actually establish ethical standards and guidelines.”
Through the action alert, the conference encouraged Catholics to voice their concerns about the draft plan’s disregard for human life and the needless spending of hundreds of million dollars on “highly speculative and morally troubling research.” The Stem Cell Board will be accepting comments from the public through June 20.
“New York state taxpayers were promised that a stem-cell bond would be put before them, by then-candidates David Paterson and Eliot Spitzer, so that voters’ voices on this controversial subject would be heard. That opportunity was subsequently denied. This may be your only chance to object to extremely controversial research practices,” Armantrout said in her letter.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Members of the public may use an electronic form on the NYSTEM Web site to make comments on the draft strategic plan. Comments also may be sent via U.S. mail to Judy Doesschate, J.D., Director of Operations, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, Empire State Plaza, Box 509, Albany, NY 12208-0509.
This story was updated on June 9, 2008.