Navigating Rough Moral Water

by Gail Quinn

September 10, 2004

Almost daily we hear about hypothetical benefits from stem cell research. The news tends to be hyped, and worse, the line between very different types of stem cell research is generally blurred. One type--embryonic stem cell research-- involves removing stem cells from human embryos, and in the process causing their deaths; the other type uses cells from born human beings of any age, and no life is extinguished.

From the public discussion one gets the impression that miraculous cures are near at hand from embryonic research. Yet embryonic stem cells have never treated a human being. Moreover, animal trials suggest they are genetically unstable and too likely to cause tumors for treatment anytime soon. Adult stem cell treatments, on the other hand, have saved the lives of thousands of human patients, most often in the form of bone marrow transplants for leukemia. They have also helped people with Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, sickle-cell anemia, and heart damage.

The lobby for embryonic stem cell research talks about a "ban" on embryonic research (there is no ban, but the federal government will not pay for some aspects of it), and dismisses stem cell research that doesn't destroy human embryos. Politicians talk of "medical miracles," and tell us that embryonic stem cell research has brought us to the brink of a cure for Alzheimer's--a claim not based on reality. In fact, when asked why scientists don't dispel this myth, NIH researcher Ronald McKay told the Washington Post that "people need a fairy tale."

The human embryo, whether created in a mother's body or in a petri dish, is human in origin, and human in destiny. The life of that embryo, with its God-given dignity, is sacred, and must be respected and protected. Embryonic stem cell research, of its very nature, is lethal to the human embryo. No human life should be subjected to manipulation, dissection and destruction for the benefit of others. As we navigate rough moral waters, we must not lose our moral compass.

Harvard University researchers recently reversed type I diabetes in mice using adult spleen cells, and the FDA has approved the next step--human trials. Some groups one might expect to help, such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, have decided not to do so. JDRF's resources and its commitment apparently are dedicated primarily to a cure for Juvenile Diabetes that may (or may not) come from embryonic research.

Lee Iacocca recently established a fund--fully separate from the Iacocca Foundation's annual giving--to raise $11 million for the Harvard human trials. He gave the first $1 million, and is asking a million Americans to join him by donating $10 (see This and other projects may offer pro-life Americans a chance to put our money where our moral convictions are.

Gail Quinn is Executive Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.