Mass. bishops call for reconsideration of governor’s stem-cell plan

BOSTON -- The four bishops of Massachusetts are calling on the Legislature to reconsider proposals to provide state funding for embryonic stem-cell research in light of recent advances in research involving adult stem cells.

In a Dec. 20 statement from the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the public policy arm of the Church in the Commonwealth, the bishops applauded a recent breakthrough in stem-cell research that they say upholds the sanctity of human life and denounced the destruction of embryos as unethical and unnecessary.

Last November, scientists working independently in both Japan and Wisconsin announced they had successfully reprogrammed human skin cells to convert into pluripotent stem cells by transferring four genes into the DNA of those skin cells. Additionally, since the skin cells of patients can be used in the process, there is no risk of rejection.

Prior to these findings, many believed that only stem cells harvested from cloned embryos were pluripotent with no risk of rejection for the patient. This process required the creation and destruction of cloned embryos.

“In light of the exciting developments in the stem-cell field, we renew our call for the promotion of biotechnology in the Commonwealth that abides by the highest ethical regard for the sanctity of human life,” the bishop’s statement said.

In the statement, the bishops reiterated their moral objections to the process of obtaining stem cells from embryos, calling it an “unethical practice that disregards human life.” They also pointed out that the process has produced no clinical benefit.

Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research for the MCC, told The Pilot that the new process is both ethical and easier for scientists to conduct.

“The argument has always been that we need to focus on embryonic stem-cell research because this is where the cures are going to be,” he said. “Now we have a much simpler process that produces cells just as potent as embryonic stem cells.”

The bishops also restated their opposition to legislation proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick that would provide $1 billion in public funding for stem-cell research. The legislation, currently moving through the hearing process, is both unjust and unnecessary because it promotes experiments that are fatal to human embryos and unnecessary in light of the recent findings, they said.

“We ask the Legislature to craft stem-cell legislation promoting only research that respects human dignity,” the bishops said in their statement. “The recent advances show that good science and respect for life can work together.”

Edward Saunders, director of the MCC, told The Pilot that the bishops hope to bring the new research findings to the attention of the Legislature. They also hope to communicate that the Catholic Church is not opposed to all stem-cell research, only the research that destroys embryos. Now that destruction of embryos is no longer necessary, he said.