New Stem Cell Guidelines Not “Ethically Sensitive”

By Cardinal Justin F. Rigali

(This column submitted to Catholic News Service on April 24, 2009, in response to a column by law professor Douglas Kmiec distributed by CNS the previous week.).

On April 17 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released new draft guidelines for federally funded embryonic stem cell research.  Federal tax dollars will now be used, for the first time, to encourage the destruction of innocent human beings for their stem cells.

Law professor Douglas Kmiec states in an opinion piece distributed by Catholic News Service that the new policy is "ethically sensitive" and in important respects "more strict" than the Bush policy that precedes it.  The truth is the opposite.

The policy issued by President Bush in August 2001 allowed the federal government to fund research using embryonic stem cells only if the embryos had already been destroyed for these cells before the date of his policy announcement. Thus no researcher could destroy embryos in the future to qualify for federal stem cell grants. The new NIH guidelines are more sweeping, encouraging the destruction of new embryos including those not yet conceived.  While Professor Kmiec says embryos will be donated using a "strict" process by which the parents give consent, that is surely broader than not allowing them to be donated for destruction at all.

Professor Kmiec says the new guidelines are limited to embryos created for fertility treatment that "would have been discarded if not devoted to medical research."  That is also not true.  Parents will be invited to consider donating their embryonic sons or daughters for research at the same time that they are considering whether to save them for their own later reproduction or donate them so another couple can have a baby. The new guidelines will encourage destruction of some embryonic human beings who could otherwise have lived and grown up to adulthood.

In key respects, these guidelines are broader than any proposed in the past for destructive embryonic stem cell research by any President or Congress.

Through his executive order of March 2009, President Obama has also authorized the NIH to broaden the policy later, to include (for example) the use of stem cells from cloned embryos specially created for research. Tragically there is significant support in Congress for such further expansion as well, and pro-life Americans will be called upon to defeat such legislation.  Here Professor Kmiec applauds President Obama for taking "off the table" the option of "reproductive cloning."  But that only means cloned human embryos will be created solely for stem cells and other research uses, and not be allowed to survive and be born. That cannot be called a sensitive or pro-life policy.

With all due respect to Profesor Kmiec, then, on this and other issues relating to the destruction of unborn human life, the federal government is not moving "in a noticeably more Catholic-friendly direction." Nor is it moving in a human-friendly direction. The values and ideals of our nation on the equality of all human beings are at stake when we discuss such issues, for people of all religions or no religion.  Respect for human life at every stage must govern our treatment of all human beings in law and medical research.  To the extent that it does not, we are no longer talking about authentic human progress.

Cardinal Rigali is Archbishop of Philadelphia and Chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.