January 20, 2006


This week there are two editorials by our editor emeritus, John Fink:

Stem cell research | Middle East conflict

Stem cell research

The scientific world, as well as those who have been campaigning for the use of embryos for stem-cell research, was shocked back in December when Dr. Hwang Woo-suk admitted that some of his research had been fabricated.

The South Korean veterinarian had become a national hero when he claimed last March, in Science magazine, that he had cultivated stem cells from a cloned human embryo. He followed that up in the June 17 issue of the magazine with the claim that he had created 11 stem-cell lines genetically linked to his patients.

Dr. Hwang has been disgraced, and the whole episode shows how eagerly some people have been for some kind of breakthrough that might result in the use of embryonic stem cells to cure all kinds of diseases, such as Parkinson’s and diabetes. The South Korean government had given Hwang a $25 million grant, and he apparently felt that he had to come up with something after 10 years of research.

There has been a race among scientists to be the first to prove that embryonic stem cells and human cloning can result in those medical breakthroughs that they are convinced are possible. It’s the same belief that convinced voters in California to approve what was known as Proposition 71, an amendment to the California constitution and a $3 billion bond measure to support embryonic stem-cell research.

The fact is that there remains no proof that embryonic stem cells are the panacea that many people think they will be. The Catholic Church opposes this research because it always results in the death of the embryo. The Church accepts the biological truth that an embryo is human life and it teaches that all human life is sacred.

Meanwhile, there have been numerous advances in research using what are known as adult stem cells, including those taken from bone marrow and umbilical-cord blood. These experiments don’t result in the death of an embryo. It would seem natural that this is where efforts should be made.

It was encouraging, therefore, that Congress approved, and President Bush signed, legislation that established a national program to promote the use of stem cells from umbilical-cord blood. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the bill last May by a vote of 431-1 and the Senate approved it by unanimous consent on Dec. 16.

There is also the possibility that another approach might work. Dr. William Hurlbut, a bioethicist at Stanford University, proposed what he called altered nuclear transfer, a process that would use embryo-like stem cells without actually creating or destroying embryos. That led to another proposal, by Dr. Robert George of Princeton and Dr. Markus Grompe of the Oregon Stem Cell Center, for what they called oocyte-assisted reprogramming—a variation of Hurlbut’s proposal. Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologians have promoted their proposal.

We hope that, now that Hwang has been discredited, research in the future will be done without the killing of embryos.

— John F. Fink

Middle East conflict

How quickly things can change in the Middle East.

In our Dec. 23 issue, we expressed “cautious optimism” that some kind of peace might come in the Holy Land. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke quickly put an end to that optimism.

That throws politics in Israel into a real mess. Perhaps Ehud Olmert will be able to take over Sharon’s Kadima Party, win the elections in March and continue Sharon’s policies that could result in a Palestinian state. Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, was—like Sharon—originally a hardline hawk, but he too came to realize that peace requires a Palestinian state.

But it’s not just Israeli politics that make us pessimistic. Events among the Palestinians have been even more chaotic. Mahmoud Abbas has been completely unable to control the Palestinian extremists, and there’s now every indication that his Fatah Party will lose the Jan. 25 elections. Hamas, which remains determined to destroy Israel, has won the allegiance of many Palestinians by operating social welfare agencies.

It would be a tragedy if Hamas wins a majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament.

— John F. Fink


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