Is the U.S. Behind the Rest of the World in Advancing Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

I am beginning to believe that it is true that Americans in general have no idea about how things really are in the rest of the world.  For example, I am sure that many in the “Occupy” crowd have no idea that they are among the richest people in the world.  And the cancellation of the first human trial with cells derived from embryonic stem cells has brought out more American cluelessness.  In an article on Katie Sharify, the last patient enrolled in the now canceled Geron study, in the San Francisco Chronicle, one reader commented:

“If she is looking for a partner to take over the research, she should really be looking in Europe, France in particular has made significant advancements with stem cell research. This is another example of our government being held back because of extremists. Too often ordinary citizens suffer or die when there are cures or treatment that are held up by nothing more than politics.”

And there it is again.  The erroneous, and unfortunately ubiquitous, idea that that the United States is sooooo far behind everyone else because we are not as “progressive” as other countries in ripping apart embryos and using them for the stem cell gold inside.  If you believed everything you read on the Internet, you would think that it is an embryonic free-for-all everywhere else in the world, like France, and every country except the United States will benefit from cures and Americans will not.  You could believe that, but it isn’t true.

We Americans need to understand the truth about embryo-destructive research in America.  The only restriction in the United States on research with human embryos on the federal level is funding research that destroys embryos.  That means that in most states, researchers are free to create and destroy human embryos all day long for stem cells or any other reason.  They can even clone human embryos.  They can even clone human embryos with cow, rabbit and mouse eggs if they so choose. In reality there are no federal laws that restrict creating, destroying or cloning human embryos for research.  There is only the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that prohibits federal monies from funding such research.  Many people even want to get rid of that relatively tiny, but critically important, funding restriction. In other words, you can experiment on human embryos all you want in the United States, you just cannot use tax-payer dollars to fund your research if it involves embryo destruction.

Compare that to the embryonic stem cell research policy in France that was just renewed.  In France, human embryonic stem cell research is banned.  Read that again Mr. SF Chronicle Commenter: in France, human embryonic stem cell research is banned. French researchers can work with human embryonic stem cells if they have a special dispensation and only if the embryos are from another country and are left-over from in vitro fertilization.  No embryos can be created for research.   Which means cloning embryos for research is also prohibited.  According to the Center for Genetics and Society’s BioPolicyWiki page, France’s 2004 law that guides research on embryos has the following core values:

Respect for the dignity of the human embryo

Respect for all stages of life

Human rights

What about Germany?  Cutting edge Germany must have progressive laws on human embryonic stem cell research right?  No again.  In Germany any research on human embryos is totally prohibited. The 1990 German Act for the Protection of Embryos states:

1. Anyone who disposes of, or hands over or acquires or uses for a purpose not serving its preservation, a human embryo produced outside the body, or removed from a woman before the completion of implantation in the uterus, will be punished with imprisonment of up to three years or a fine.

2. Likewise, anyone will be punished who causes a human embryo to develop further outside the body for any purpose other than bringing about of a pregnancy.

Austria also bans embryonic stem cell research.  Denmark and Italy prohibit the destruction of human embryos for embryonic stem cells but they allow for the importation of human embryonic stem cell lines from other countries.  In fact here is a list of European Countries that, unlike the United States, ban the creation of human embryos for use in research:  Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Spain,  Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxemborg, Lativa, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romaina, Sewden, Slovenia, and Slokavia.  This means all these countries have banned the cloning embryos for research, which the United States has not.

Well what about in North America?  Surely Canada has more “progressive” laws than the United States?  Wrong again.  In Canada, embryos cannot be created for research and existing IVF embryos can only be destroyed for research if all parties involved (sperm and egg donors) have given informed consent.  This means that Canada has also banned cloning human embryos for research.

See the United States is backward in its polices regarding research on human embryos, but not for the reasons may people believe.  It is backward because unlike other countries it has no national policy that protects human embryos at all!

So this Christmas while we Americans are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in a orgy of consumerism, take a moment to reflect on our country’s lack of protections for the smallest of our species. Protections afforded in other more “progressive” countries that understand that even the smallest of human lives have value.

Center for Genetics and Society’s BioPolicWiki
Genetics and Policy Center
World Human Cloning Policies
Canadian Institutes of Health Research

Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for six years and is a regular on Catholic radio.