Public Funding of Destructive Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Letter to Congress on Public Funding of Destructive Embryonic Stem Cell Research

July 10, 2001

Dear Member of Congress:

I am writing on behalf of the Catholic bishops of the United States to express our grave concern as you face one of the most important decisions of this Congress: whether to provide public funding for research that relies on the destruction of human life in its earliest stages.

We know that speculations about the possible benefits of such research, and mistaken views about the status of the human embryo, have led many to urge you to abandon your convictions. We believe it is more important than ever to stand for the principle that government must not treat any living human being as research material, as a mere means for benefit to others.

Government support for destructive human embryo research has been proposed in our nation since 1979. At first these proposals concerned the use of so-called "spare" or "excess" embryos from fertility clinics -- relying on the fallacy that if parents say they no longer want their unborn child, the government may assist in that child's destruction for its own purposes. Since 1994 the National Institutes of Health has also favored supporting research in which human embryos are created solely for research and then destroyed. This year the biotechnology industry began to campaign for the freedom to use human cloning to create embryos for medical research, saying that this ability to create genetically matched embryos for each patient will be essential to realizing the benefits of embryonic stem cell research.

Throughout this history, however, no Administration of either party has funded a research project that relies on destroying live human embryos. The Clinton Administration's plans to do so were delayed by public opposition, then halted for good reason by the Bush Administration. If the federal government decides even to partially implement the National Institutes of Health's guidelines for embryonic stem cell research, this will open the door to broader assaults on innocent human life in the name of research. Congress and this Administration would then endorse the principle that alleged research benefits outweigh the inviolable dignity of innocent human life. Attempts to prevent further abuses will likely be futile, as researchers demand more and more freedom to set aside restrictions that prevent them from realizing their dreams of conquering disease. We applaud the Administration's recent announcement that it supports a complete ban on human cloning – but we believe that a wrong decision on the matter before you will undermine that stand.

In short, we believe you can make a difficult but correct decision now – or set the stage for all-but-impossible decisions in the future for yourself and your successors, as a research enterprise impatient with moral limits increasingly leads us into a culture of death.

We also hold that funding research relying on the destruction of human embryos would violate federal statutory law. The legal situation should also be a factor in your decision. We have grieved for many years over the assault on unborn human life set loose upon our nation by the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision. Even that decision, however, did not affect all areas of law where lawmakers seek to protect developing human life. Because they are not covered by the Court's theory of reproductive privacy, human embryos outside the womb may be fully protected by law – and at least nine states have acted to protect these embryos from lethal experiments. In some states, destructive experimentation on human embryos is a felony.

We do not see how such laws would survive, and others like them be enacted, if the federal government were to give its blessing to such destruction for research purposes. An entire area of law where states have been able to express respect for human life would be wiped away.

We know that many have made expansive claims for the benefits of human embryo research. However, all such claims are conjectural. Embryonic stem cell research has not helped a single human patient or demonstrated any therapeutic benefit. At the same time, adult stem cells have helped hundreds of thousands of patients and new clinical uses expand almost weekly. Even President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, recognizing the human embryo as "a developing form of human life," concluded that the use of embryos from fertility clinics for such research cannot be justified if morally noncontroversial alternatives exist. There is now ample evidence that they do exist, are far more promising than once thought, and are worthy of increased public attention and government support.

In the final analysis, however, this decision is not primarily about medical benefits.

In his great novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky raised the question whether it would be right to build a world without human suffering if "it was essential and inevitable to torture to death one tiny creature" such as an innocent child to achieve that end. Each of us must answer that ultimate question in the depths of his or her own conscience. The claim that destructive embryo research will achieve such a utopian end is, we believe, a hollow promise. In the meantime, however, the killing will be quite real.

We hope and pray that you will consider these reflections and agree that our government should not support research that relies on the destruction of innocent human beings. Please know that, through all our resources for teaching and public communication, we will provide every support for that decision.


Most Rev. Joseph A. Fiorenza

Bishop of Galveston-Houston


National Conference of Catholic Bishops