Presbyterians vote in favor of fetal, embryonic, and stem cell research

June 14, 2001

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church overwhelmingly affirms the use of fetal tissue and embryonic tissue for vital research, including the use of human stem cell tissue for research that may result in the restoring of health to those suffering from serious illness. The Assembly, meeting in Louisville, KY, is the highest governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The 85% affirmative vote was taken on June 15 at 11:30 am. The full text of the resolution included in the release.

Contact Mr. Charles Wiley at 502 767 3446 for information.

Below is the text of a resolution that received an 85% affirmative vote at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), meeting in Louisville KY. The vote occurred in the late morning of June 15, 2001. The resolution was presented by the Presbytery of Baltimore, but now has the endorsement of the denominations highest decision-making body.

Overture 01-50. On Adopting a Resolution Enunciating Ethical Guidelines for Fetal Tissue and Stem Cell Research-From the Presbytery of Baltimore.

The Presbytery of Baltimore overtures the 213th General Assembly (2001) to approve the following resolution in accordance the General Assembly Guidelines "Forming Social Policy" paragraph 4:

Whereas, the following policy statements of previous General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) provide general guidance that may be considered to apply to fetal tissue and stem cell research:

1. "The Covenant of Life and the Caring Community" (1983), which states, "The 195th General Assembly (1983): . . . Discourages development of human embryos and their use for experimentation except in those cases of clearly demonstrable benefit where no other substitute could accomplish the same end" (Minutes, 1983, Part I, p. 364). The statement goes on to state, "As society looks to the benefits of biotechnology, there must be more serious social and ethical discussion about its application, especially human application. Abuses in eugenics programs in the recent past make the establishment of guidelines for the application of biotechnologies to human beings mandatory. The deepest issues of life and its meaning must not be obscured in the rush to profits and benefits promised by new biotechnologies." [Ibid., p. 365]

2. "Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly" (1992), which included the following response to Commissioners' Resolution 89-33 from the 207th General Assembly (1989): "The [General Assembly] concurs with the intent of the resolution to oppose abortions for the express purpose of selling or providing tissues for research or transplantation, and is opposed to the sale of fetal human tissue obtained in elective abortion. However, we are opposed to, and cannot concur with, calling on Congress to prohibit the use of federal funding for research using fetal tissue" (Minutes, 1992, Part I, p. 373); and

Whereas, since these statements were made, both the possible benefits of, and the complicated moral issues involved with, stem cell and fetal tissue research have greatly increased and demand the specific attention of Presbyterians and the larger society; therefore, be it

Resolved, That the 213th General Assembly (2001) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approves for itself, commends to governing bodies and individual Presbyterians, and presents to the larger society for its consideration the following "Statement on the Ethical and Moral Implications of Stem Cell and Fetal Tissue Research":

Introduction

Contemporary medical research and technologies have presented humankind with complex ethical and moral realities never before envisioned. These realities bear careful review and consideration as new therapies are developed to cure diseases and illnesses. As people of faith we are called to be partners with God in healing and in the alleviation of human pain and suffering.

Human pluripotent stem cells, more commonly known simply as stem cells, are derived through two different methods: one uses early stage embryos in excess of clinical need and donated by women undergoing in vitro fertilization; the other method isolates stem cells from aborted fetuses. Stem cells have the ability to divide for an indefinite period in culture and can develop into most of the specialized cells and tissues of the body, such as muscle cells, nerve cells, liver cells, and blood cells. The use of stem cells has far-reaching possibilities including "cell therapies." Stem cells stimulated to develop into specialized cells could be used to treat diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries, stroke, burns, heart disease, and diabetes. Using stem cells could reduce the dependence on organ donation and transplantation.

The moral issues raised by stem cell research differ, depending on whether the cells come from aborted fetuses or embryos resulting from in vitro fertilization that are no longer needed for infertility treatment.

Research on Tissue Resulting from Abortion

The ethical acceptability of deriving stem cells from the tissue of aborted fetuses is closely connected to the morality of abortion. Some of those who oppose using stem cells derived from aborted fetuses argue that abortion for any reason is wrong. Those who so believe also fear that the possibility of donating the fetus for stem cell research will encourage women to have more abortions or justify abortions that otherwise could not be justified. They believe that researchers would be complicit in an immoral act. In addition, they may believe that a woman seeking an abortion should not have the right to give consent to the use of the tissue because she has forfeited her maternal trusteeship by aborting the fetus.

The General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have consistently supported women's right to choose an abortion based on conscience and religious beliefs. We believe that a woman's right to evaluate her life situation and the impact of her pregnancy on her own health and on her obligations to other family members is an essential element of her personhood and her status as a moral being. We view abortion as not only protected under U.S. law, but as morally justifiable in certain circumstances.

We believe that the use of tissue derived from fetuses is morally and ethically acceptable, provided that the procurement of that tissue is subject to appropriate limitations, and we believe that such limitations should be incorporated into regulatory law. Regulation of donations needs to assure that the decision to have an abortion is separated from the decision to donate fetal tissue. The sale or commercialization of fetal tissue should be legally prohibited.

Research with Stem Cells Derived from Embryos

Research with stem cells obtained from human embryos poses moral difficulties that do not exist in the case of fetal tissues. The life of the fetus has already been terminated when the researcher receives tissue from an aborted fetus, while the life of embryonic tissue resulting from infertility treatment must be terminated. The morality of ending the life of embryos rests on how one views the moral status of the embryos. We believe, as do most authorities that have addressed the issue, that human embryos do have the potential of personhood, and as such they deserve respect. That respect must be shown by requiring that the interests or goals to be accomplished by using human embryos be compelling and unreachable by other means. Indications are that human embryonic stem cell research has the potential to lead to lifesaving breakthroughs in major diseases. Currently, this knowledge cannot be obtained from cells derived from other sources such as adult stem cells and cadaveric fetal tissue. Prohibition of the derivation of stem cells from embryos would elevate the showing of respect to human embryos above that of helping persons whose pain and suffering might be alleviated. Embryos resulting from infertility treatment to be used for such research must be limited to those embryos that do not have a chance of growing into personhood because the woman has decided to discontinue further treatments and they are not available for donation to another woman for personal or medical reasons, or because a donor is not available. Again, the sale or commercialization of embryonic tissue should be legally prohibited.

Conclusion

Therefore, the 213th General Assembly (2001) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirms the use of fetal tissue and embryonic tissue for vital research. Our respect for life includes respect for the embryo and fetus, and we affirm that decisions about embryos and fetuses need to be made with responsibility. Therefore, we believe that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other faith groups should educate their members in making these very difficult ethical decisions. With careful regulation, we affirm the use of human stem cell tissue for research that may result in the restoring of health to those suffering from serious illness. We affirm our support for stem cell research, recognizing that this research moves to a new and challenging frontier. We recognize the need for continuing, informed public dialogue and equitable sharing of information of the results of stem cell research. It is only with such public dialogue and information sharing that our diverse society can build a foundation for responsible movement toward this frontier that offers enormous hope and challenge.
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Science and Religion Information Service

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