Ask Nikolas Nikas and he will tell you that opposing embryonic stem-cell research is a hard sell. As he recently told a meeting of the Catholic Medical Association, this is true even in a pro-life state like Louisiana, which is considering a bill that would attempt to ban all cloning there.

The facts are, no one has been helped by embryonic stem-cell research and thousands have been helped by adult stem-cell research. Nevertheless, legislators continue to press for embryonic stem-cell research, said Nikas, who is general counsel for Americans United for Life, a Chicago-based, pro-life law firm.

That is why the California Catholic Conference acknowledges they have an uphill battle ahead of them in opposing a ballot initiative that would amend the state's constitution to require funding for this type of research.

Snake-oil salesmen

Carol Hogan, spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference, said the initiative proponents manipulate emotions by bringing sick people to committee meetings where they tell their often heart-rending stories. This angers her, she said, because these sick people are being used for political purposes and being sold "snake oil" with promises that stem-cell research will bring them cures.

The California Stem Cell Research and Cure Initiative, if passed, would require the state to spend $295 million a year for 10 years on embryonic stem-cell research. Although the bill does not use the word "cloning," it would allow for "somatic cell nuclear transfer" research -- a technical name for one type of cloning -- making it a "clone-and-kill" bill. Advocates claim the medical advances made would "significantly reduce state health care costs in the future."

While certain technological advances are guaranteed with this kind of spending, making cures out of it is quite another thing, according to Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk.

"With that kind of money, there is no question that the frontiers of stem-cell biology will be pushed forward," said the Yale-trained neuroscientist, who is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass. "But that question has to be linked to the question of ethics because one can use money to violate all sorts of human goods in the name of cures."

In fact, he said, the money "is not being well spent, but spent in a morally corrosive fashion. It would be better spent on adult stem-cell therapies, which are already yielding remarkable cures in humans. There is no need to spend millions on a misguided and immoral quest for cures somewhere in the far distant future, when those cures can be realized much more expeditiously in the short term at much lower expense."

Embryonic stem cells are obtained by first producing an embryo, either by the union of sperm and egg or by cloning, waiting for it to develop a few days in a petri dish and then extracting the stem cells -- the master cells that turn into other types of cells, like nerves, stomach and skin. In order to obtain the cells, the embryo is killed.

What's in a name?

That is why the language is so important. Calling it "somatic cell nuclear transfer," Father Pacholczyk said, "obscures the fact that you have to destroy a living human embryo" to get the cells.

Doing this kind of research, he said, will "invariably turn the human person into a product."

How far this can go is anyone's guess. Recent reports about artificially generated sperm and egg cells are disconcerting to Father Pacholczyk.

The problem, he said, "is that we have already slipped so far down the slopes of in-vitro fertilization, abortion and contraception that our faculty for moral judgment in these other new areas of biomedicine has become seriously compromised."

There have been more than 40 million abortions in this country since 1973, and Father Pacholczyk estimates the number of embryonic children destroyed during fertility treatments or killed for research purposes is more than 1 million.

But a variety of adult stem cells in fat and umbilical cord blood can do the same things as stem cells from embryos. A recent PBS documentary showed a number of patients who have benefited from this type of therapy, including a man who avoided a heart transplant and a young woman who is learning to walk again after a spinal cord injury.

So, why are scientists so interested in embryonic stem cells? Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, director of the stem-cell biology program at the University of Minnesota, told Minnesota Public Radio that what scientists want to know is if embryonic stem cells can do the same thing as adult stem cells -- only better. A bill supplying money for a joint venture between the university and Mayo Clinic didn't go forward in the Minnesota legislature.

However, the New Jersey legislature recently provided $6.5 million a year for an institute devoted to embryonic stem-cell research. That bill was opposed by the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said Bill Bolan, the conference's director. But the proponents "brought in Christopher Reeve every time," he said. "The public relations battle was lost from the beginning. They're selling hype and we're defending microscopic human life in a laboratory."

Moral prescription

The solution? "A consistent ethic of life to inform and guide science and medicine so that it does not spiral off in a dangerously dehumanizing direction," according to Father Pacholczyk.

That's where Catholic wisdom can help.

"The Roman Catholic Church brings a privileged perspective and well-formulated understanding of the critical human issues that are at stake in these discussions, and she needs to always be an active participant at the table," he said.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Minnesota.