Pro-Life Advocates Defend Embryonic Stem Cell Research Alternatives Bill

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 13, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Pro-Life Advocates Defend Embryonic Stem Cell Research Alternatives Bill Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 13, 2006

Washington, DC ( — Pro-life advocates are defending legislation asking the federal government to investigate methods of obtaining embryonic stem cells that don’t involve the destruction of human life. They say a web site that published an article containing an accusation that pro-life groups are "selling out" by supporting the bill is off target.

The Canadian web page LifeSite wrote an article Wednesday which pro-life advocates say wrongly assumes that the bill in question endorses a method of trying to obtain stem cells proposed by Stanford University scientist William Hurlbut. wrote about Hurlbut’s proposal in December 2004.

Hurlbut said DNA from a donor’s cell can be implanted into a human egg that has had its nucleus removed and then stimulating the egg to divide. By turning off a gene that is necessary for development, scientists could prevent conception from occurring, thus producing a human embryo, and stem cells could be developed without destroying a unique life.

Hurlbut, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, has championed this technique, called altered nuclear transfer, as an embryonic stem cell research alternative.

As has reported, pro-life advocates have expressed concern that the process could accidentally destroy human embryos in its attempt to obtain the cells.

However, the new legislation, sponsored by renown pro-life Senator Rick Santorum, does not endorse the Hurlbut method in its attempt to find embryonic stem cell research alternatives.

"Contary to the impression left by the [LifeSite] story, S. 2754 simply pushes the federal research establishment to try to find ways to develop pluripotent stem cells without creating or harming human embryos," National Right to Life legislative director Douglas Johnson told

"It does not endorse the particular method proposed by Dr. Hurlbut or any other particular method," Johnson explained.

Johnson added that the Santorum legislation couldn’t authorize the federal government to pursue research that destroyed human life because of previous federal law.

He indicated the Santorum bill "does incorporate the Dickey Amendment, which is the law that bans federal funding of research in which human embryos are harmed, and which appropriately defines the term ’embryo."

Senator Santorum also defends his legislation as a pro-life alternative to embryonic stem cell research.

"This bill directs NIH to support research into alternative sources or ways of deriving embryonic-like, or pluripotent, stem cells that do not require the creation, destruction or harming of human embryos," he explained in a statement.

He indicated his bill "will encourage additional scientific research into pluripotent stem cells while respecting all embryonic life."

While the LifeSite story includes a quote from American Life League president Judie Brown attacking supporters of the bill as "selling out the pro-life principle," the Catholic Church, which takes a back seat to no one in its consistent pro-life views, supports the Santorum measure.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has encouraged both Catholics and Congressional lawmakers to back it.

Previously, Richard Doerflinger, a leading USCCB spokesman on bioethics issues, said the Hurlbut embryonic stem cell research proposal presented concerns for pro-life advocates. He said PGD is unethical because it could injure or kill the unborn child if unsuccessful and because it is mostly an effort "to select out genetically imperfect embryos."

However, because the Santorum bill does not endorse the Hurlbut method, the USCCB is backing the legislation.

Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore, head of pro-life activities for the USCCB, said “the effort to explore all feasible avenues of research that do not attack human life is worth pursuing.”

"This bill does not fund research using human embryos and references a careful definition of ‘human embryo’ … that has served the cause of ethical research well,” Cardinal Keeler explained, referring to the Dickey amendment.

Keeler added, "In the case of any technique whose nature is uncertain, the bill provides for additional basic and animal research to make certain that the technique does not create or harm human embryos before it can be applied to humans."

"In short, it defines a clear and responsible policy that should be supported by defenders of the sanctity of human life," Cardinal Keeler concluded.

Other pro-life groups have also either endorsed the Santorum measure or have said that it doesn’t present pro-life advocates with ethical concerns.

In a message to its members, the Family Research Council said the Santorum measure "would encourage scientists to seek ethical stem cell alternatives." The group said the Santorum measure is preferred over a bill that would overturn President Bush’s limits on embryonic stem cell research funding.

FRC spokesman Dr. David Prentice, a former biology professor at Indiana State University, said the Santorum bill "does not violate ethical principles and such research is currently allowed. Senators should vote for this bill instead of the embryo destruction bill."

The National Committee for a Human Life Amendment and Christian Life Resources have also encouraged their members to call lawmakers in support of the Santorum legislation.

Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America have taken no position on the bill, but they both indicate it doesn’t present ethical concerns for pro-life advocates.

Meanwhile, Johnson told that the Canadian LifeSite story also wrongly assumes that the federal government would pursue embryonic stem cell research alternatives involving the destruction of human life.

"The author of the article seems bothered that this embryo-protective policy would be administered by federal ‘bureaucrats,’ but of course that has been true since the Dickey Amendment was enacted in 1995, and would be no more or less true if S. 2754 is enacted," Johnson explained.

Johnson indicated that numerous American pro-life groups monitor the activities of the U.S. government and hold it accountable.

"The laws that prohibit federal funding of abortion and assisted suicide are also administered by federal agencies," Johnson said. "Lawmakers and interested organizations watch to make sure that such laws are not evaded."

The Senate will debate the Santorum measure, the embryonic stem cell research funding bill and a pro-life proposal to ban "fetal farming" on Monday and has planned votes on all three on Tuesday. Each bill needs 60 votes to be approved.