Monday, April 03, 2006

The Episcopal Church and Health Care: Embryonic Stem Cells

There is a fight going on these days over embryonic stem cells, how they might be used, and how they might be obtained. The debate has been going on for some time as to whether this is or is not cloning a human being. Indeed, the term “cloning” often is used by those who oppose it, while those who believe that there is potential benefit in research on embryonic stem cells speak of somatic cell gene transfer, or somatic cell nuclear transfer.

And the fight has found a new arena: who will fund the research. Under the current administration in Washington there are a limited number of established cultures of stem cells that can be used for federally funded research. In reaction the state of California passed legislation that as a state it could and would fund research. Closer to home, there are those in my own state legislature in Missouri that wanted last year to pass a bill banning any research involving embryonic stem cells, reflecting a belief that those embryos destroyed in the process were fully human. In response the governor of Illinois made public that he would be delighted to see researchers, and their research dollars, leave Missouri for greener pastures in his state.

I have taken on the project of holding up actions of General Convention regarding issues in and related to health care. As you might expect, this is also a topic on which General Convention has spoken. In 2003 two resolutions were passed by General Convention. The first, Resolution 2003-A014, was titled, “Support Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” The text is:

Resolved, That the 74th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, believing that a wider availability of embryonic stem cells for medical research holds the potential for discovery of effective treatment of a wide variety of diseases and other medical conditions;

A. Support the choice of those who wish to donate their early embryos, remaining after in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures have ended; and
B. Urge that the United States Congress pass legislation that would authorize federal funding for derivation of and medical research on human embryonic stem cells that were generated for IVF and remain after fertilization procedures have been concluded, provided that:

1. these early embryos are no longer required for procreation by those donating them and would simply be discarded;
2. those donating early embryos have given their prior informed consent to their use in stem cell research;
3. the embryos were not deliberately created for research purposes;
4. the embryos were not obtained by sale or purchase; and be it further

Resolved, That the 74th General Convention of The Episcopal Church urge the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish an interdisciplinary oversight body for all research in both the public and private sectors that involves stem cells from human embryos, parthenotes, sperm cells, or egg cells, and have this body in place within six months of passing such legislation; and be it further
Resolved, That the 74th General Convention of The Episcopal Church direct the Secretary of General Convention to communicate this resolution to appropriate members and committees of the United States Congress and direct the Office of Government Relations to identify and advocate the legislation called for by this resolution.

A second resolution, 2003-A012, was titled, “Adopt Guidelines for Genetic Testing and Reproductive Technology.” While the point of the resolution was to address genetic testing of children and of prospective parents, it included the provisions that,

    • Treatment for genetic diseases and the use of somatic gene transfer therapies
      may be used if they are proven safe and effective; [and]
    • It is not morally
      acceptable to use reproductive cloning, and it is therefore morally
      irresponsible for physicians, scientists, and prospective parents to engage in

Thus, the Episcopal Church in General Convention is on record as supporting research on embryonic stem cells, provided the they are obtained appropriately; supporting use of therapies resulting from that research; and condemning cloning for purposes of reproduction.

This controversy isn’t going away any time soon. The arguments over legislation and funding will continue, reflecting the continuing arguments over when potential human life becomes actual human life, with full moral and civil rights. These resolutions don’t address that prior question. Nor would I expect these to be final: there may well be resolutions related to this issue in this General Convention in Columbus. However, they are the most authoritative statements to date of the position of the Episcopal Church; and if we know of them they can offer us guidance for our own decisions, and a public voice for the Church in the continuing debate.

No comments: