Richard M. Doerflinger, who grew up in St. Albans and Massapequa, is associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A federal court has blocked federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, on a legal basis that is simple enough: Since 1996, Congress has said the government cannot make taxpayers fund any research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed.
The Obama administration nevertheless issued guidelines to fund every part of such research projects, except the fleeting act of destroying the embryo. A judge now says no. It is hypocritical and, in this case, illegal, to use taxpayer funds for research that relies on destroying human embryos, then claim you are not encouraging such destruction.
Some want to end that hypocrisy through new legislation committing our government more openly to destroying early human life in the name of progress. Instead, we should step back and ask if this is the right thing to do at all.
Evasions have been offered to cloud the issue. Some say the embryo is too primitive, too undeveloped, to be a "person." But "personhood" is a slippery legal term. Some courts have recognized corporations as persons, and other courts have failed to recognize that status for some human beings (such as African-Americans in the early United States). A more basic reality is that the embryonic human being is a developing member of the human family, someone's very young son or daughter. Each of us was once a human embryo. Given a nurturing environment, each embryo would have a chance to grow up as one of us. That must count for something.
But no, it is said, these particular embryos don't have a chance, because they are only destroyed for research if they would have been discarded anyway. Actually that's not true. The administration's guidelines allow parents to donate embryos for research that destroys them, even when there are other options that would allow the embryos to live - for example, through adoption by other couples. And it surely matters that now our government would set itself against these lives in a new way, in our name and with our money. All of us will eventually die anyway; that doesn't mean our government can kill us.
But what of the lives to be saved by destroying human embryos for their stem cells? What about the miracle cures we've been promised for so many years? Well, suffering patients are still waiting for those cures, and scientists admit they may wait many more years.
In the meantime, adult stem cells - from numerous adult tissues, or from umbilical cords and placentas from births - are showing extraordinarily greater promise than was once thought possible.
They have long been used to help save cancer patients. In clinical trials, they are now healing damaged hearts, restoring sight, repairing wounds and fractured bones, and even rebuilding entire windpipes and other organs. Researchers in Portugal, Ecuador, Brazil and Australia have published studies showing their benefits for patients with chronic spinal cord injury. And new advances in "induced pluripotent stem cells" - adult cells turned directly into cells with many of the properties of embryonic cells - are said by many, including a former National Institutes of Health director, Dr. Bernadine Healy, to be making embryonic stem cells "obsolete."
Why isn't the United States on that list of groundbreaking countries that have reported progress in beginning to help paralyzed patients walk again? The federal court found that by pouring resources into research that destroys human embryos, the federal government is causing "irreparable harm" to researchers working with adult stem cells. Our country is at risk of falling behind in regenerative medicine because it has been so obsessed with embryo research that it is neglecting the pursuit of advances more likely to help patients.
In short, the born and unborn alike may fare better if we channel our scarce federal research dollars into medical advances that harm no one, that everyone can support - and that can produce treatments for devastating diseases more quickly. This court decision gives us an opportunity to explore that "win/win" solution.