A Stay of Execution for Over a Half-Million Embryos in Frozen Orphanages

Last week, in a decision which surprised nearly everyone involved in the scientific community, federal district judge Royce C. Lamberth blocked President Barack Obama’s Executive Order of March, 2009 that allowed expanded federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

The judge’s ruling gives a reprieve, from possible destruction, to the over 500,000 human embryos that are currently stored in liquid nitrogen tanks in fertility clinics in the United States, a number comparable to the entire population of the state of Wyoming.  And, because our country does not have any laws to regulate the infertility industry, thousands of human embryos are being created each month and sentenced to be part of the half-million embryos in frozen orphanages.

Father Tad Pacholczyk, the Director of Education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, in an interview with Catholic Exchange, said the practice of freezing human embryos is one of “the greatest humanitarian tragedies of our time.”

This week, opponents of Judge Lamberth’s decision are moving quickly to get the ruling either overturned or to get Congress to change the law to allow human embryonic research back on track. One possible option in Congress would be to lift the funding freeze by modifying the language of the Dickey-Wicker amendment.  This is the amendment that has been attached to spending bills since 1996 which prohibits the use of federal funds for research that destroys human embryos.


President Obama’s Executive Order attempted to get around the Dickey-Wicker amendment by saying that federal funding could only be used in research on the stem cells harvested from human embryos; it could not fund the actual killing of the human embryos themselves. Judge Lamberth saw through the ruse, and said the federal prohibition, “encompasses all ‘research in which’ an embryo is destroyed, not just the ‘piece of research’ in which the embryo is destroyed.”

An Important Decision

Father Pacholczyk told Catholic Exchange that while he was surprised by the judge’s ruling, it was hugely significant. “I would say it is a very important decision because it constitutes the central issue in the minds of many scientists; namely is the federal government going to be funding the kind of research that some scientists would like to do with human embryos?”

Father Pacholczyk, who earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale University and did post-doctoral studies at Harvard University, said while the issue is complicated to some, “embryonic human life is inviolable and deserving of unconditional respect.”

Scientists and others who claim that the human embryos are needed for research and would simply be wasted are not painting a complete picture, explained Father Pacholczyk.

“The situation is given a false dichotomy very often that ‘it is either this or that.’ Either the embryos will be thrown away or we could get some wondrous and miraculous cures if you would just let us have them. I think that is what the average person supposes, but the fact of the matter is we should never be throwing away a fellow human being. So the first point can never be granted. No, of course we cannot throw them away, these are our children, trapped in frozen orphanages and we have the duty to protect them and safeguard them to best of our ability and not hand them over to be destroyed for research purposes.”

In the next several weeks Congress may go in and attempt to tinker with the Dickey-Wicker amendment to allow federal funding to destroy human embryos. Instead, Father Pacholczyk said what should be done is to create and pass far-reaching Embryo Protection Laws.

“The temptation to dehumanize our own human brothers and sisters is a perennial one, hearkening back to the time in our country when slaves could be considered three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation. Treating embryos as zero-fifths of a person constitutes an even more deplorable human rights violation. The smallest members of our human family deserve legal protection,” said Father Pacholczyk.

“In Germany and Italy they have passed laws that prevent the creation of human embryos by fertility clinics unless they are used during the implantation process,” he added.

“Laws like those in Germany and Italy, while they would not stop every injustice done to embryos,” emphasized Father Pacholczyk, “They could go a long way towards stemming the tide and assuring that further forms of laboratory barbarism and human exploitation do not become commonplace.”

Research is Moving Forward without Human Embryos

Science is moving forward without using human embryos. Researchers are using animal embryos, adult stem cells, umbilical cord stem cells and other methods to treat and potentially develop new cellular therapies for several life-threatening diseases.  Catholic Exchange talked to Dr. Keith March, Professor of Medicine, Cellular and Integrative Physiology, and Biomedical Engineering and the Director of the Vascular and Cardiac Adult Stem Cell Therapy Center at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Dr. March and his team are on the vanguard of adult stem cell research, creating medical therapies using stem cells taken from a patient’s own body.  There are hopes that one day diseases like emphysema, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, to name a few, could be cured using stem cells harvested from our own bodies.  Dr. March indicated that this approach may be medically a very feasible solution, while being free of moral controversy.

Armstrong: Since research dollars are limited, can people expect the same bang for their buck if we invested solely in adult stem cell research and did not spend another penny ever on human embryonic stem cell research?

Dr. March: Adult stem cells have been used in treating diseases in a variety of situations for a number of years with great success.  Many people know about bone marrow transplants and umbilical cord transplants occurring over the last two decades; and they have saved tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives.  I don’t think people realize that these are adult stem cells at work.  More funding is certainly required to advance this type of success.

The stem cells from the blood forming system have been used to aid and, in many cases, to cure people of cancers and blood diseases as well.

What is happening now in the field relates to exploring further possible utility of stem cells which are obtained from your own body.  Examples of sources include one’s own bone marrow, fat, skin, and even hair follicles, among others.  Some have found that the area above the nose is a practical source of neural stem cells.

One exciting thing about such stem cells is that each cell type can be readily obtained from the human body in a minimally invasive way.  And such stem cells are in literally hundreds of clinical trials all over the world.  It is an exciting time for the field.

Armstrong: And yet, Dr. March, there are those who believe without access to Human Embryonic Stem Cells, somehow science is missing out on potential cures for diseases.  Do you have a comment on that?

Dr. March: From a clinical standpoint, adult stem cells are the ones that have demonstrated success to date.  Adult stem cells make the most sense from a practical and pragmatic approach to the repair and rescue of human organs or tissues, from diseases.  That’s because the adult stem cells have that normal function.  Adult stem cells normally function to repair and rebuild tissues in which they exist.  There are many additional diseases for which adult stem cells are currently being evaluated.

However with an embryonic stem cell, along the same lines of reasoning here, their normal function is actually to build an embryo.  Their purpose is to create all the tissues and organs needed for embryonic development, rather than to do tissue repair.

Armstrong: And isn’t it true that using cells from your own body to cure a disease or regenerate an organ, instead from someone else’s embryo, would eliminate rejection issues?

Dr. March: Certainly if you are getting the stem cells from your own body, there is not going to be a substantial issue of rejection.

Armstrong: I understand that many trials are underway on adult stem therapies but they are having difficulty finding candidates, in part, because people are confused between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, correct?

Dr. March: That’s correct.  Right now there are a range of trials all over the world, including trials involving poor circulation, multiple sclerosis and heart disease among many others  I think we all recognize that all of these are still preliminary with adult stem cells.  But a message that needs to get out there is these trials need patients.  A challenge for us is to get patients enrolled in these promising adult stem cell trials.

People are often not aware that adult stem cells are in clinical trials.  Perhaps this may be because much attention has been brought to embryonic stem cell therapy and the controversy surrounding it, and little attention is provided to adult stem cell clinical trials that are underway all over the world. It would be helpful to change that perspective.


With the limited funding that is available in general for medical research and the skyrocketing cost of medical care in general, many scientists and physicians like Dr. March and his colleagues believe it makes financial and moral sense to continue on with the research into adult stem therapies by funding and promoting those clinical trials with adult stem cells.

While Congress typically doesn’t move quickly on issues, it will see enormous pressure to act on changing the Dickey-Wicker amendment or to overturn Judge Lamberth’s decision in the coming weeks and provide a mechanism for research dollars for embryonic stem cell research.  The destruction of over a half-million frozen human embryos in the United States is at stake.

Whatever happens, it doesn’t change the fact that over half-million human embryos remain in frozen orphanages across the United States without a moral way out of their dilemma. And couples who continue to want to have children through in vitro fertilization, without a law to the contrary, will continue to sentence more human embryos to their frozen crypts.

Web Resources

National Catholic Bioethics Center: www.ncbcenter.org

President Barack Obama’s Executive Order: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Removing-Barriers-to-Responsible-Scientific-Research-Involving-Human-Stem-Cells/

Dr. Keith March, Vascular and Cardiac Adult Stem Cell Therapy Center: http://stemcellsignature.iupui.edu/


Co-author of "Amazing Grace for Fathers", website at RaisingCatholicKids.com

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