This week, the gaze of the international medical research community is fixed on Baltimore, as leading scientists have gathered here for the World Stem Cell Summit. This is both an opportunity to showcase the great talent found in Maryland's research institutions and also an occasion to invite some of the world's greatest minds to re-commit themselves to research that is ethically sound.
I offer this appeal in the hope that the research being conducted and which will be discussed in Baltimore this week will uncover new avenues to relieve human suffering and advance life. But I also offer a word of deep concern and caution: Science divorced from ethics undermines genuine progress. This is certainly the case with embryonic stem cell research.
It is legitimate to question the hype surrounding embryonic stem cell research, which has yet to produce a single cure or treatment. Conversely, adult stem cell research, a morally acceptable alternative promoted by the Catholic Church and others, is treating more than 70 conditions, from Parkinson's disease to spinal cord injuries to blindness.
Nor is embryonic stem cell research scientifically flawless. It is plagued by tumor growth and tissue rejection. Morally acceptable induced pluripotent stem cells, manipulated to behave like embryonic stem cells, have solved the problem of tissue rejection because the stem cells are taken from a patient's own body.
Yet even if these formidable problems are resolved, the basic problem remains: Embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of human embryos.
It is understandably tempting to pursue this avenue given the stated goal of such research to produce treatments that could relieve the pain of, and perhaps even provide cures for, diseases plaguing countless people. Those burdened by disease or injuries deserve our unequivocal support, and scientific research should undoubtedly be commissioned on their behalf.
That same science, however, also irrefutably demonstrates that a human embryo is a distinct human being. Its appearance and abilities differ from ours, but its nature is the same.
To end one human life for the sake of another, even when the former is microscopically small and the latter is someone we know and love, is to play a dangerous game of utilitarianism. We shouldn't end lives to save lives. This practice violates one of the most basic ethical principles: The ends do not justify the means.
The consequences of losing sight of these principles are far-reaching. On a practical level, basic priorities are skewed. Maryland is funneling $12 million this fiscal year to stem cell research, much of it embryonic. Meanwhile, the Maryland MedBank Program, which helps struggling Marylanders obtain necessary prescription drugs, has had its funding cut entirely. This is tragic.
Dismissing the moral questions surrounding embryonic stem cell research also opens the door to increasingly problematic scientific experiments and the accompanying ethical land mines they lay.
Already, some scientists are abandoning so-called "leftover" embryos from fertility clinics in favor of producing fresh embryos themselves. The enterprise is disguised in scientific terms - somatic cell nuclear transfer - because of the fear provoked by the layman's term: human cloning.
Yet no matter the obfuscatory language that may surround it, the reality remains that some scientists are actively working to produce cloned human embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them for research. This is disturbing, to say the least.
To be sure, medical science offers a valuable "service to human fragility aimed at the cure of disease, the relief of suffering and the equitable extension of necessary care to all people," as the Vatican affirmed last year. But it will only remain in this service if pursued - both in its means and its end - with clear ethical boundaries that respect human life.
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien leads the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.