Testimony Before NBAC Meeting in Northbrook, Illinois, May 11, 1999


Dr. Shapiro, Members of the Commission, and Guests,

My name is Daniel McConchie, Operations Director for The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity located just north of here in Bannockburn, Illinois.

With the astonishing number of recent advances in research on stem cells, there is real promise for the future of medical treatment. As an advisory commission, you have the duty to support research that has the potential of bettering or saving the lives of millions of people worldwide as long as that research does not better or save some human life by harming or destroying other human life.

This country has long sought to curb these sorts of utilitarian notions. For example, we do not allow the carving up of one life in order to transplant the organs and save several others. The still existent funding ban on destructive human embryo research serves to stem the same utilitarian mentality. This precedent is useful to guide us and avoid the enticement to sacrifice some human beings for the benefit of others.

With that in mind, it is important, in fact imperative, that you oppose human embryonic stem cell research while encouraging research into adult stem cells.

There are many reasons one can argue in support of this position. In the limited time I have, let me bring up three points:

First, obtaining the stem cells an embryo possesses necessitates that we destroy a human being in the early stages of life. Because we should not further our quest for medical treatment by sanctioning the destruction of one group of humanity to promote the benefit of another, we must avoid any activity that necessarily demands the taking of life. We are all placed at risk whenever any one group, especially a weak, under-represented group, is singled out for discrimination.

Second, because a large portion of the population of the United States sincerely believes that human life begins at fertilization, many people may oppose receiving or providing treatments derived from research built upon the destruction of human embryos. This could result in the refusal of treatment by patients who are not willing to better or save their lives at the cost of embryonic life, and the similar refusal by health care professionals to offer such treatment. Research into and perfection of treatments using adult stem cells does not carry the same stigma attached to embryonic stem cell treatments. In fact, emphasis on research into embryonic stem cells could taint all stem cell treatments in the minds of many Americans and therefore actually hinder the sick and dying from considering legitimate treatment options.

Third, it is important to note that little will be lost by opposing only embryonic stem cell research. Adult stem cells have a greater probability of use in medical treatments in the foreseeable future. Biotechnology is much further away from being able to turn embryonic stem cells into usable medical treatments. Two main obstacles, immunological incompatibility and inability to direct the differentiation of cells into desired tissues, may be less problematic or not at all problematic with the use of adult stem cells.

There are these and other moral and practical reasons for avoiding human embryonic stem cell research. There is a way to support stem cell research without doing violence to the earliest stages of human life. As members of the Commission, you have a responsibility to exercise your ethical duty by encouraging new technology that promises medical benefit while restraining unbridled utilitarian notions. We are not faced here with a choice between conducting research on human embryonic stem cells to develop medical treatments, and forgoing the possibility of having treatments at all. Rather, we can pursue medical gain via a moral and publicly acceptable form of research, or via research that destroys human embryos and will be rejected by those patients who refuse to discriminate against any form of human life.

I encourage the Commission to be a balancing voice in this debate and encourage stem cell research that is not dependent on the destruction of human life.

Thank you.