Licenses to Kill
Embryonic Stem Cell Work Gets Go-ahead
By Father John Flynn
CANBERRA, Australia, NOV. 20, 2006 (Zenit) - Proponents of research using stem cells from human embryos have won a number of victories. In Australia the federal Senate narrowly voted to allow stem cells from cloned embryos to be used for research.
In a 34-32 vote, senators overturned restrictions approved by the upper chamber in 2002, reported the Age newspaper on Nov. 8. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to receive approval.
The vote followed a government report published last year, the Lockhart Review, named after a former judge, John Lockhart, who conducted an inquiry into the issue. His report recommended allowing the cloning of human embryos and the harvesting of stem cells for research.
Those in favor of the measure argued that it was vital in order to allow scientists to undertake experiments to find cures for the sick. Others, nevertheless, warned of the dangerous consequences. "No matter how seemingly well intended the subsequent purpose/use might be," warned John Hogg, a senator for Queensland, during the debate, "the initial action in creating the cloned human embryo crosses fundamental ethical lines."
The approval was greeted with dismay by some politicians, the Australian newspaper reported Nov. 8. Steve Fielding, leader of the political party Family First, said he backed the search for cures for diseases but could not tolerate cloning. "We have crossed a line where we will be creating a human being with the intention of destroying it," he said.
The Catholic Church strongly opposed the lifting of restrictions. In comments published Nov. 2 by the Australian newspaper, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney assailed as an affront to human dignity the idea of "therapeutic cloning" to produce stem cells for research.
Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney gave testimony before the Senate's Community Affairs Committee during hearings on the stem cell issue. He told senators Oct. 20 that the Church does not oppose stem cell research so long as it is conducted in an ethical way.
Denial of dignity
But cloning human beings "is ethically abhorrent," Bishop Fisher stated. "To clone them is a failure of respect for the human being who is manufactured and a denial of universal human dignity."
In a statement issued Oct. 11 the Australian Catholic bishops pointed out that the Church's opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells was not an attempt to impose religious principles in the civil sphere. "We do not argue against destructive experimentation on embryos simply because we are Catholic, but because of basic human values," they explained. "As a society we cannot seek to alleviate the suffering of some people by creating and then killing human life."
In the lead-up to the vote the proposal was also criticized for ignoring women's interests. Monique Baldwin, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience, observed that women must provide a large supply of ova in order to produce the cloned embryos.
Baldwin, whose comments appeared Nov. 8 in the Age newspaper, is an Australian representative of Hands Off Our Ovaries, an international coalition of women.
Extracting the ova, she explained, involved weeks of testing, followed by more than a week of hormone injections. In the process, up to 10% of women develop ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a painful condition that is sometimes fatal.
Baldwin also questioned the scientific need for allowing cloning. The law already allows research on stem cells from embryos "left over" from in vitro fertilization treatment. Scientists, she noted, have used only 179 "excess" IVF embryos from the more than 104,000 embryos in storage -- yet they are asking for more embryos, deliberately cloned to be destroyed.
Embryonic stem cell research is going ahead in the United States as well. A referendum held during the elections last week saw voters in Missouri approve a state constitutional amendment prohibiting government officials from banning the use of experiments with embryo stem cells.
The measure was approved of a margin of 51% to 49%, reported the Washington Times on Nov. 9. A number of states have now undermined the federal government's ban on official funding for experiments using embryo stem cells.
According to an analysis published Oct. 5 on the Stateline.org Web site, six states had already taken steps to fund research. So far, California has committed $3 billion for the research; Connecticut has committed $20 million; Illinois, $15 million; New Jersey, $5.5 million; Maryland, $15 million; and Massachusetts, $15 million. Another 27 states, however, have laws restricting embryonic stem cell research.
The vote in Missouri will add to pressure in favor of lifting the current federal ban on funds for embryo stem cell experiments. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who will be the next speaker of the House of Representatives, announced she will make federal support for such research a priority, Reuters reported Nov. 13.
The vote also emboldened scientists in Germany to seek a change in the laws restricting research with embryos. The DFG institute of scientists, described Nov. 10 by Reuters as "influential," called for the lifting of a federal law approved in 2002 that controls the import of embryonic cells from pre-existing stem lines and bars their production in Germany.
German Research Minister Annette Schavan, however, rejected the demand, according to Reuters.
Tapping a "surplus"
Other countries, nevertheless, have recently given the green light to research using human embryos. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research gave approval to use embryos for stem cell research for the first time, the National Post newspaper reported June 27.
The approval allows the use of "surplus" embryos from IVF treatments, not only those already frozen, but also new ones still to be created. The project approved is organized by the Canadian Stem Cell Network, a federally funded group.
A month later, the European Union agreed to continue funding research on embryonic stem cells. The approval came in spite of opposition from some EU member countries, reported the BBC on July 24.
European Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potocnik said the European Union would not finance the "procurement" of embryonic stem cells -- a process which results in the death of the embryo -- but it would finance the "subsequent steps" to make use of the cells.
No such restrictions are in place in Singapore. The New York Times on Aug. 17 described how the country is keen to establish itself as a center for biomedical research.
Singapore still bans the sale of chewing gum, so as not to dirty the sidewalks. Human life, it seems, is not valued so highly as clean streets, and a local company is now selling vials of embryonic stem cells over the Internet to researchers.
Research that involves the suppression of human lives will be condemned by history, warned Benedict XVI in an address to members of the Pontifical Academy for Life on Sept. 16, 2005.
"No one can dispose of human life," the Pope stated. "The human being is not a disposable object, but every single individual represent's God's presence in the world." The Holy Father went on to condemn the legalization of work involving the taking of life as being equivalent to the legalization of crime. A move, unfortunately, being approved in only too many countries.
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