Statement Signed by SBC Leaders Calls for Protection of Embryos

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

WASHINGTON - A new form of cell research that requires the destruction of human embryos is both unethical and illegal and should continue to be prohibited by Congress, specialists in ethics, law, medicine, science and theology say in a recently released statement. Among the 100-plus signers of the document are several affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention's seminaries and ethics agency.

The statement calls for Congress to maintain its ban on federally funded human embryo research and to clarify that the prohibition applies to recently discovered stem-cell research involving the destruction of such embryos. The signers also call for Congress to provide funds for research into other treatments that do not result in destroying human embryos.

Southern Baptists signing the statement were Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Seminary; Daniel Heimbach, ethics professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and C. Ben Mitchell, consultant on biomedical and life issues for the ERLC.

The statement was released in Washington after several months of preparation of a response to the November announcement that stem cells had been isolated from human embryos for the first time and the subsequent decision by the federal government to fund such research. This form of stem-cell research results in the killing of the embryo, however.

All 210 kinds of tissue in the human body develop from stem cells, the statement says. The landmark achievement of isolating stem cells from human embryos provides hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating such conditions as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, strokes and burns.

While they agree providing treatment and healing for afflicted persons "is a great good, we also recognize that not all methods of achieving a desired good are morally or legally justifiable," the signers say in the document, which is titled "On Human Embryos: An Appeal for Legally and Ethically Responsible Science and Public Policy."

Federal, state and international laws already provide protection for human embryos and make stem-cell research requiring their destruction illegal, the statement says.

The scientific and medical gain possible from such research would not justify it, the statement says. "Human embryos are not mere biological tissues or clusters of cells; they are the tiniest of human beings," the statement says. "Thus, we have a moral responsibility not to deliberately harm them.

"The prospect of government-sponsored experiments to manipulate and destroy human embryos should make us all lie awake at night. That some individuals would be destroyed in the name of medical science constitutes a threat to us all."

Instead, the government should promote the development of alternative ways of repairing and redeveloping human tissue, the signers say. Promising sources of stem cells are available from bone marrow and from the placenta or umbilical cord blood in live births, from fetal bone marrow and from living human nerve tissue, they say. Another method of tissue regeneration is somatic cell gene therapy, in which "a gene that controls the production of growth factors can be injected directly into a patient's own cells," the statement says.

Even if such alternative treatments do not prove as efficient as stem cells from human embryos, the latter method is still not justifiable, the signers say.

Mitchell, one of the drafters of the statement, said one of its purposes was "to plant a flag around which concerned individuals and groups can rally."

"We must not allow human beings, even the youngest of us, to be used as means to the ends of lethal research goals," he said.

"We are not against all stem-cell research. The problem is that there is no way to do human embryonic, stem-cell research without destroying embryos. We find that kind of research grotesque and ethically unacceptable.

"The argument that destroying the embryos for research is not immoral because they will die anyway simply will not wash," Mitchell said. "Prisoners on death row will die anyway, but we do not and should not allow them to be killed for research purposes. There are simply some purposes to which human beings should not be subjected in a civilized society, no matter what the potential benefit."

Mitchell was an ethics professor at Southern Seminary until July 1, when he became assistant professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

The Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution on stem-cell research during its June annual meeting in Atlanta. The resolution opposed the destruction of human embryos and called for the development of treatments that do not result in such harm.

The announcement that stem cells had been isolated was made in November by teams of scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The Wisconsin team took the stem cells from living embryos obtained from an in vitro fertilization clinic, while the Johns Hopkins team obtained their cells from aborted babies.

In December, National Institutes of Health Director Harold Varmus announced the agency would underwrite research on stem cells. He based his decision on an opinion from HHS General Counsel Harriet Rabb in which she said such action would not violate a congressional ban on human embryo research because such cells do not constitute an embryo and cannot develop into a human being. Varmus' ruling would permit federal funding of research on stem cells obtained by privately financed means.
Members of Congress wrote HHS Secretary Donna Shalala asking her to overrule Varmus' decision and to correct Rabb's interpretation.

NIH funding of such research "would violate both the letter and spirit of the federal law banning federal support for research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed," a letter from 70 members of the House of Representatives said. "While the act of destroying or injuring an embryo would certainly be ineligible for federal funding, the law has a broader application. It also bars the use of tax dollars to fund research which follows or depends upon the destruction of or injury to a human embryo."

The ban in question has been in effect since January 1996 as an amendment to the annual appropriations bill for Health and Human Services. It says funds may not be used for "the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes" or "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero ... ." It does not prohibit privately funded research.

In May, it was reported the National Bioethics Advisory Commission planned to recommend the federal government should fund research on unwanted embryos left at fertility clinics. Only three days before the release of the statement opposing stem-cell research on embryos, the presidentially appointed panel decided in a straw vote to support the funding of scientists who take stem cells from human embryos, The New York Times reported.

At a July 1 news conference announcing the release of the statement opposing embryo research, Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., said in opposition to the NIH ruling, "We believe that this language is clear; the law is clear. We also believe that there are better, more promising avenues to follow in order to continue our battle against some of the diseases which we are battling today."

Among other signers of the statement are C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general; Michael Behe, biology professor at Lehigh University; Nigel Cameron, advisory board chairman for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity; Arthur Dyck, ethics professor at Harvard University; Robert George, law professor at Princeton University; Christopher Hook, director of ethics education at the Mayo Clinic; Richard John Neuhaus, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life; David Wells, theology professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; and Frank Young, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Printed with permission from Baptist Press.