Vote for Science?

by Richard M. Doerflinger

October 22, 2004

Today politicians favoring morally controversial embryonic stem cell research are urging Americans to vote for "science," and support leaders who "believe in science."

Real scientists cringe at such statements. We should all respect science as a field of knowledge, and welcome what it has done to improve our lives (without forgetting that it has also developed efficient new ways for people to kill each other). But making science an article of faith is misguided and dangerous -- especially when "science" is equated with one specific and destructive way to obtain stem cells for research.

What real science tells us about the "promise" of embryonic stem cells doesn't fit easily on a bumper sticker. These cells are obtained by destroying fellow members of the human species at a very young age. The cells are versatile and fast-growing, making them interesting to researchers, but also prone to tumor formation and uncontrollable growth when placed in animals. They have never helped a human patient, and might never do so.

Even strong proponents are beginning to realize that too much blind faith has been placed in embryonic stem cells. Columnist Morton Kondracke has lobbied for federal funding of this research for years, in part because his wife died of Parkinson's disease. But when a politician announced recently that upon his election "people like Christopher Reeve are going to get up out of their wheelchair and walk again," Mr. Kondracke responded: "That's nonsense. Embryonic stem-cell research is still in its infancy and it will be decades before it actually fulfills its potential to cure people with diseases like Reeve's or Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's or Mary Tyler Moore's juvenile diabetes" (Washington Times, Oct. 19, 2004, A17).

Christopher Reeve, just before he died, made a similar concession. In an interview in the October 2004 Reader's Digest, he insisted that "scientists should be free to pursue every possible avenue," but added that it now seems embryonic stem cells "are not able to do much about chronic injuries" like his own (Jim Kelly, "The Wrong Path," National Review Online, Oct. 21, New treatments using adult stem cells are showing amazing results in patients with chronic, long-lasting spinal cord injury, and they have been featured on a nationally televised PBS program. Sadly, Mr. Reeve and others had dismissed such advances, thinking embryonic stem cells would be better.

Now California voters are being urged to place their blind faith, and their already-stretched resources, behind this approach. A ballot measure ( Proposition 71), if approved on November 2, would declare a "constitutional right" to do stem cell research and make the state acquire a $6 billion debt to pursue it. Top priority will go to avenues that are too unethical to qualify for federal funding, namely the destruction of new human embryos and the use of cloning to mass-produce even more. All funding decisions will be made by the universities, patient groups, for-profit biotechnology companies, and venture capitalists who endorse the embryo research/cloning agenda - and the legislature will have little power to divert those funds to more critical needs.

This is beginning to look like the least accountable and most unforgiving religion on earth.

Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.