Upstate doctor helps clarify stem cell vs. embryo debate

By Terry Cregar

MAULDIN — Close to 100 middle and high school students, their parents and other adults participated in a discussion on embryonic stem cell research and cloning led by Upstate physician Dr. Mark O’Rourke.

O’Rourke, a medical oncologist and partner at the CancerCenters of the Carolinas in Greenville, is a parishioner at St. Mary Church in Greenville.

“He spoke to all the Respect Life coordinators in the Piedmont Deanery in September, and we asked him if he would come speak at our church,” said Valerie Baronkin, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and coordinator of the Piedmont Deanery of Respect Life.

O’Rourke has had articles critical of therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research published in both Catholic and secular publications.

His interest in cloning and embryonic stem cell research grew out of what he saw as a need to better inform the public about the dangers of the practice.

“It’s a hard topic to understand, and not many people do,” he said.

The discussion, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Council 8182 and the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church Respect Life Committee, included a PowerPoint presentation from O’Rourke who used slides to illustrate how stem cells form and where they can be obtained.

He noted that stem cells can be collected from places other than an embryo, including blood from a baby’s umbilical cord that is normally discarded after birth, the placenta and from adult tissue.

“There are a lot of different places, other than a human embryo, where you can get stem cells from,” O’Rourke said.

Bishop Robert J. Baker has said that any embryonic stem cell research is “an affront to human life for those who believe that human life and human personhood begin at conception.”

The Catholic teaching is that human life and human personhood begin at conception, Baker has said, a position that O’Rourke shares.

“The only way embryonic stem cells will ever be obtained is by killing embryos. The issue isn’t stem cell research, it’s the killing of embryos to obtain the stem cells.

“The bottom line is that we need to protect humans at the embryo stage of life,” O’Rourke said.

The doctor said that what makes embryos so attractive in stem cell research is that the stem cells are easier to grow than from other sources.

“It’s hard to get stem cells to grow from adult tissue,” he said. “Embryos are much less developed, much less further along than adult tissue.”

O’Rourke said that while there is “huge potential” in stem cells from the blood of the umbilical cord, many of his peers are dragging their feet on the research.

“Doctors and scientists don’t want to be told what to do. If you’re a research scientist and think you are the smartest guy around, you don’t need government or society telling you what you can and cannot do,” he said.

On the issue of therapeutic cloning and the creation of human embryo clones to facilitate embryonic stem cell research, O’Rourke said the procedure would be no different than using non-cloned human embryos.

He said the current culture in this country as it relates to using human embryos for research can be compared with the cotton grower of two centuries ago who used slaves to cultivate his crop.

“It’s like telling the plantation owner of 200 years ago that he needs to harvest his cotton another way,” said the physician.

“Two-hundred years ago, slaves were considered property instead of persons, and today we know that that fertilized egg is a human being, but we willfully choose not to see the humanity in that person,” he said.

“The reality of our culture is that people are killing these one-cell human beings without giving it much thought.”