The Little People on Death Row

By Tom Grenchik 

May 15, 2009

Americans have until May 26 to intervene in the death sentences of countless members of our human family.  Unless we speak up, some of our youngest sisters and brothers may now be destroyed because their parts are valued more than their very lives.

Stem cells are biological building blocks that can be manipulated to replace many other types of cells, in the hope of repairing the human body and curing disease.  Stem cells can be taken from adult tissues and from newborn babies’ umbilical cord blood without any harm to the donor, and without any moral dilemma.  These are loosely called “adult stem cells.” But stem cells can also be immorally harvested from a human embryo, destroying the un-consenting “donor.”  These are called “embryonic stem cells.”

Adult stem cells have been used to regenerate areas of damaged organs, restore eyesight, repair heart damage and treat rare blood disorders.  Embryonic stem cell treatments, on the other hand, have chiefly resulted in growing tumors and killing laboratory rats.  

Following President Obama’s March 9 executive order, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has proposed new guidelines for federally funded embryonic stem cell research. The guidelines would – for the first time – use taxpayer funds to encourage the killing of embryonic human beings for their stem cells. This is morally wrong. Even if an embryo may be at risk of being abandoned by his or her parents in a fertility clinic, that does not give researchers or the government a right to kill that human being – much less a right to make the rest of us subsidize that destructive agenda. These guidelines mark a new chapter in divorcing biomedical research from its necessary ethical foundation, respect for human life at all stages. 

Some in Congress and the Administration want an even broader policy. They want to obtain stem cells by destroying human embryos specially generated for research through in vitro fertilization (IVF) or cloning procedures, a “create to kill” policy.  While the president’s executive order gave the NIH the leeway to push to that extreme, so far these initial guidelines have not done so. 

Patients suffering from devastating illnesses deserve our compassion and our committed response, but not at the cost of innocent life.  The Church supports ethical stem cell research and treatments that do no harm and respect the inherent dignity of persons, such as the morally acceptable medical advances that are already benefiting patients with dozens of conditions in clinical trials.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has launched a new “Oppose Destructive Stem Cell Research” campaign, equipping citizens to contact Congress and the National Institutes of Health to oppose embryonic stem cell research and support ethical and effective cures and treatments.  The campaign homepage,, explains why the proposed NIH guidelines are unacceptable, provides links to USCCB resources, and helps web users to “Contact Congress & NIH Now” by e-mail.

But time is running short for our embryonic sisters and brothers.  If we don’t speak up, after May 26 their fate lies in the hands of researchers and ideologues who may see them merely sources of body parts, as commodities for our use.  Please go to right now.

Tom Grenchik is Executive Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to to learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities.