National Bioethics Advisory Commission's Report on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Letter to Congress on the National Bioethics Advisory Commission's Report on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

May 27, 1999

Dear Member of Congress:

This week news media reported preliminary recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission on embryonic stem cell research. The Commission recommends federal funding of experiments in which live human embryos are killed to obtain their cells for research.

Sadly, the Commission's analysis is gravely deficient. It makes three important concessions regarding destructive embryo research, then draws exactly the wrong conclusion from them.

First, the Commission recognizes that federal funding will implicate all taxpayers in destroying human life. It rejects the Clinton Administration's claim that stem cell research requiring destruction of embryos can be funded without violating current federal policy against harmful embryo research. "As long as embryos are destroyed as part of the research enterprise," says the Commission, "researchers using embryonic stem cells (and those who fund them) will be complicit in the death of embryos." But the Commission then concludes that Congress should change the law so taxpayers will be forced to subsidize the killing of human embryos.

Second, the Commission recognizes that millions of Americans see the human embryo as a human being with a right to life, and that disagreements on this question cannot be ignored or easily resolved. But it proceeds to argue that in a pluralistic society, these millions of Americans must suppress their consciences and support this destructive experimentation. Just the opposite is true: In a pluralistic society, government must not force millions of taxpayers to subsidize what they know to be the unjust taking of innocent human life.

Third, the Commission recognizes that research avenues that pose no moral problem should be given preference -- that morally questionable research should not be considered unless it is "necessary" to cure life-endangering disease. The Commission's viewpoint here is still flawed, because one must not commit injustices even if that is deemed "necessary" to reach some important goal. But in any case, the Commission does not draw the sensible conclusion from its own premise: that startling new advances in adult stem cells and other means for regenerating human tissue should be explored first to see if embryonic stem cell research is "unnecessary."

The Commission rests its argument for federal funding on a chilling analogy: Just as government now refuses to fund most abortions, but will fund those deemed "necessary" to save the life of the mother, so government may kill human embryos when "necessary" for research that may save the lives of others. Thus human beings come to be seen merely as disposable cells or organs in the body politic, to be sacrificed when killing them may serve the whole organism. The Commission's resort to such an argument only underscores how radical its proposal really is.

On one point, however, the Commission is absolutely right: This Administration's efforts to circumvent current law to fund destructive experiments without congressional authorization are hypocritical and morally incoherent. Now that President Clinton's own Commission advising him on ethical issues has pointed this out, Congress should demand that the Administration cease its efforts to evade the law.

Very sincerely,

Cardinal William H. Keeler

Archbishop of Baltimore

Chairman, Committee for Pro-Life Activities

National Conference of Catholic Bishops