By Mar Muñoz-Visoso

Our menu today includes rice, beans and embryonic stem cells. Say what?

I know the latest scientific developments are not the usual topic of dinner-table conversation, but given the latest events perhaps we, simple mortals, should try to understand what is going on, why they cause so much “noise,” and make an attempt to discern the truth in the midst of all the news clucking, created interests and mere stubbornness.

Just a few days ago, the news media reported that the first embryonic stem cell clinical trial had been approved in the United States. The goal of this trial is to determine the safety of this kind of experimentation in humans, not its effectiveness in healing patients.{{more}}

Adult stem cells are nowadays widely used in the treatment of many types of cancer and other severe illnesses, and many clinical trials have already shown benefit to patients with heart problems, corneal damage, multiple sclerosis and numerous other devastating conditions. The Catholic Church supports and encourages this line of research, which it considers morally acceptable and in keeping with the scientific and medical tradition of seeking the good of humanity.

Embryonic stem cell research, however, poses serious ethical concerns because it requires destroying an embryo in order to obtain the cells. Is it permissible to directly kill human beings to make them the object of scientific research or to save other adult human beings?

Those who affirm that it is permissible use several arguments.

Some say any damage done is widely compensated by the potential benefits. However, the end doesn’t justify the means. A good end never justifies the direct killing of another human being. Additionally, the so touted “potential benefits” are in this case more than questionable, given the great unresolved medical problems – including their propensity to create tumors – that embryonic stem cells pose.

Others argue that what is destroyed is not a human life, or at least not a human being with fundamental rights. You and I were embryos once. The embryo may be small, immature and greatly dependent but, from the moment of conception, it is a living member of the homo sapiens species. Biologically, it contains a complete set of human genes. To say that our rights depend on our physical or mental abilities (the embryo is too weak, is not developed yet, lacks mental capacities, etc.) is to deny the human dignity inherent in every human being.

Some also hide behind the fallacious argument that dissecting human embryos must not be seen as a loss of embryonic life. They say discarded or unwanted human embryos are used “that will die anyway.” Eventually we will all die, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to kill us.

Moreover, because embryonic stem cells can be rejected as foreign tissue by patients’ bodies, are very unstable and are difficult to develop into just one cell type at a time, great numbers of viable human embryos with different genetic profiles may be needed to continue this line of research.

The mass production of human embryos also poses important ethical challenges, including the cloning of human embryos in laboratories for research purposes and the probable exploitation of women to obtain the eggs needed for such production.

Nowadays we know that stem cells from adult tissues, as well as those associated with a live birth (such as the umbilical cord, placenta, amniotic fluid, etc.) are far more versatile than originally thought. Researchers have developed new, non-destructive methods to produce cells with all the properties of embryonic stem cells (called “induced Pluripotent Stem Cells” or iPSC) by “reprogramming” adult cells.

Some people, like Dr. Bernardine Healy, former National Institutes of Health (NIH) director, even say that the development of these new cells and their potential is making embryonic stem cells “obsolete.”

While other countries are publishing important studies showing tremendous progress in clinical trials for organ and tissue repair using adult stem cells, our country continues to be obsessed with embryonic stem cell research to our own detriment.

As judicial debate continues over whether federal funding of embryonic stem cell research violates current law, the United States should rethink our medical research strategies. From a moral, as well as scientific and practical point of view, focusing on research that helps patients without harming anyone seems the right thing to do.

More frijolitos, anyone?

Mar Muñoz-Visoso is assistant director of Media Relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.