Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Notes on Proposition 71

By Gerald D. Coleman, S.S.
13 September 2004

Prop 71, "The Embryo Cloning and Stem Research Bond Act," will appear on the November 2nd California ballot. Prop 71 proposes to fund embryonic stem cell research with a $3 billion bond issue that will cost taxpayers $6 billion in principal and interest.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops' Pro-Life Secretariat and the California Conference of Catholic Bishops have weighed in strongly against Prop 71. Their main reasons urging a NO vote are:

  • Drawing stem cells from an embryo always destroys the human embryo, thus aborting human life.

  • From a social justice perspective, cloning embryos for the sole purpose of killing them is unjustified and manipulative and the Prop 71 denies funding for adult and umbilical cord blood stem cell research, while launching the State into a costly bond issue at a time when money is badly needed for health, education, police and fire services.

  • Embryonic stem cell research makes exaggerated promises of immediate help to people suffering from a of number debilitating diseases, while in fact adult stem cells mostly from bone marrow transplants have already helped patients with leukemia, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury and dozens of other conditions.

  • The rhetoric favoring embryonic stem cell research is falsely and cruelly manipulative by suggesting that debilitating diseases will soon be cured by the use of embryonic stem cells.

The backers of embryonic stem cell research are impressive and numerous: e.g., the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, the Alzheimer's Association California Council, American Nurses Association of California, California Medical Association, Parkinson's Action Network, American Diabetes Association, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, a broad coalition of scientists and physicians, and a clear majority of Americans, more then 70% of voters according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Since 1988. embryonic stem cell research is already legal in the U.S. Dozens of groups are studying them, including a major stem cell center recently established at Stanford University. In August 2001 President Bush allowed federal funding using only existing stem cell lines, but no funding for creating new stem cell lines. As Time magazine's Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, Bush would not permit the creation of embryos "purposely and wantonly for nothing but use by science." (Time, August 23, pg 78) A total of roughly $12 million has been raised to support Prop 71 that would allow embryonic stem cell research at California Universities, Medical Schools and research facilities.

The debate over embryonic stem cell research is not a dispute between reason (those for Prop 71) versus ignorance (those against Prop 71). Rather, the debate concerns a serious deliberation about two values: (1) a thirst for cures for debilitating diseases and (2) the respect for embryonic human life.

There is need for a moral compass to guide us through these concerns.

  1. Opposition to Prop 71 is not based on Catholic or religious beliefs. Opposition is based on common scientific understanding that when a sperm fertilizes an egg, forming an embryo, a new DNA comes into existence, and human life appears. If this embryo is placed in a woman, nine months' later there will be a baby. On Larry King Live Ron Reagan said that stem cells are merely "a collection of cells in a petri dish that are never, ever going to be a human being." Such an assertion is overly simplistic: see point #2. Moral point #1: We must be good ancestors by thinking more deeply about what it means to be human as decisions today will affect every aspect of human life in the future.

  2. All human life deserves absolute respect no matter its size or sentience. Intentional destruction of human life is always unacceptable. The newly-formed embryo (zygote) possesses an inherent unity and potency. As Stanford's Dr. William Hurlbut puts it, "In biology, the whole … precedes and produces the parts. It is this implicit whole, with its inherent potency, that endows the embryo with its human character and therefore its inviolable moral status." Moral point #2: To interfere with an embryo's development is to transgress upon a human life in process.

  3. An ovum is on the threshold of human life, and when fertilized becomes a human embryo. Stem cells from an embryo have the extraordinary capacity to become any one of more than 200 cell types in the human body because the cells themselves are human. The ovum has a haploid nucleus and contains half the genetic material that, together with the other half from sperm, constitutes the complete genome of a human being. Once the egg and sperm are united and the DNA double helixes are raveled and unraveled, a human being is present. Moral point #3: to take stem cells from a fertilized egg is destruction of a new genome, and new DNA, a new human life.

  4. In somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the core of genetic material in the center of the cell of an ovum is removed (enucleated) and replaced with a nucleus of any type of advanced tissues (e.g., from skin, liver, brain). When treated properly with electric shock, chemicals and hormones, the original cell divides to the blastocyst stage, the inner cell mass is removed, and a new stem line is established, named by some as a clonate or a recombinant embryo. If these cells are truly embryonic, they are multi-purpose (pluripotent) and have the capacity to differentiate into any tissue or organ. The extracted cells contain the original DNA of the donor. Theoretically this cell type can be used to repair damaged or defective tissue in the donor's body without rejection or immune reactions. Moral point #4: The blastocyst is formed by cloning from an individual patient and the product of the cloning is a human embryo which sustains the same moral status as a fertilized embryo. Identifying human life only with the fertilization of an embryo is thus narrow and incomplete.

  5. Stem cells can come from many sources such as umbilical cords, the placenta, amniotic fluid, adult tissue, and organs such as bone marrow. The stem cell debate should not be reduced to an all-or-nothing ethical issue. It is possible and even laudatory to favor these types of stem cell removal, while not approving of stem cells from embryos, whether the embryos are created by fertilization or by somatic cell nuclear transfer. Moral point #5: It is possible and reasonable to fully support research from embryonic germ cells, umbilical cord stem cells, and adult stem cells and not support embryonic stem cell research.

  6. This entire debate is framed in utilitarian terms of "progress," "cures," or a "better life." In the embryonic stem cell controversy, human life is becoming an objective commodity. There is now a new category cordoned off and the subject of rejection: the human embryo. In the process of in vitro fertilization, e.g., thousands of embryos have been frozen and are looked upon as a "piece of property." These embryos are trapped in liquid nitrogen. If released, however, they show themselves to be human life. Moral point #6: Giving people false hopes is tantamount to emotional manipulation and false advertising. A YES on Prop 71 forecloses a careful and thoughtful dialog which is necessary in this debate, a further conversation that must be carried out in a true spirit of humility, respect for human life, patience, and a capacity to see issues through the eyes of others.

  7. Stewardship is a critical social and ethical issue. $12 million has been amassed in support of Prop 71, whereas only $125,000 has been contributed to fight this Proposition. Moral Point #7: How can Californians justify $3-6 billion from the general fund to pay off the bonds for research that may benefit a few, when the State has 7 million Californians with no health insurance coverage, and many more millions needing education and other State and local services to keep them alive and functional?

Read more presentations from Stem Cells, Moral Status, and California Proposition 71.

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