Stem-cell initiative holds promise for breakthroughs in cures for diseases

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

With news about stem-cell research making its way into our newspapers nearly every morning, one thing Missourians should agree on: All of us -- Democrats and Republicans, men and women, Protestant, Catholics and Jews -- should have equal access to the same stem-cell research and therapies that our fellow Americans enjoy. The Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative is designed to ensure just that.

I am a Pope John XXIII and Archbishop John L. May Roman Catholic who voted pro-life while representing Missourians in the U.S. Senate. I support this initiative because I believe it would be wrong to turn our backs on cures to some of the most terrible diseases and injuries that afflict our fellow humans. I believe that those who truly respect the sanctity of human life should encourage and support our researchers and medical institutions in their efforts to advance responsible science and develop cures and therapies.

In his book "Square Peg: Confessions of a Citizen's Senator," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wrote, "As a right-to-life senator, I believe that a critical part of a pro-life, pro-family philosophy is helping the living. The purpose of [stem-cell] research is to save life, not terminate it." I second my former colleague's statement. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist thinks the same. Gov. Matt Blunt thinks the same. Sen. Jim Talent floated a proposal that satisfied neither side.

The overwhelming majority of medical experts and patient groups agree that all types of stem-cell research should be pursued in the effort to find lifesaving cures. Early, or embryonic, stem cells are particularly promising because they have the potential to turn into and regenerate any type of cell or tissue in the human body. As a result, cells offer promise to provide cures for diseases and injuries that cannot be treated successfully, including diabetes, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, ALS, sickle cell disease and spinal-cord injury.

Missouri is my home, and it is the home of my family. Nearly every one of us in this state is impacted by disease, illness or injury that could be addressed with stem cells. We all have a stake and an interest in seeing to it that stem-cell research and cures are permitted in world-acclaimed Washington University in St. Louis which has been a leader in medical research for decades. Across the state, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, only a few years in existence, is already one of the most innovative and well-endowed biomedical research organizations in the world. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have made notable advances in techniques with stem cells. All of these institutions operate under the highest ethical and legal standards. These treasures should be encouraged, not weakened.

Early stem-cell research is the new frontier in medicine. If Missouri is going to remain at the forefront of medical science, we must continue to have access to the most promising areas of research and any medical treatments that result. Passing the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative is the only way to ensure that our state will keep taking measured steps forward.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the premier teacher in the Roman Catholic tradition, did not think that the early fetus was a person, "ensouled," in his language. St. Thomas believed that the early life in the womb received a spiritual soul -- and became a baby -- only after three to four months. If so, embryonic cells in a lab dish or frozen away are certainly not ensouled.

When the right to life of the fertilized egg is invoked in this debate, a counter right must also be recognized, and that is the right to health of persons who suffer from such diseases as mentioned above.

There are only three ways to deal with surplus fertility clinic embryos:

1. The couple authorizes their destruction.

2. They are frozen and, after time, have so deteriorated to be unusable for either research or for trying to initiate a pregnancy.

3. The couple can donate them for medical health research.

Isn't medical health research clearly preferable?

Thomas F. Eagleton of St. Louis is a former U.S. senator from Missouri.