The conference's Permanent Commission expressed its "ethical reservations" over the Nov. 28 referendum on the law regulating the research.
The purpose of the referendum, described by the Swiss bishops in a statement as "delicate and very important," is to decide whether scientific research should be carried out using stem cells of "spare" embryos produced in vitro.
In the spring of 2000, Marisa Jaconi, biologist of Geneva's University Clinic, requested financial aid from the National Swiss Fund for herself and her team, for a research project that includes the use of human embryonic stem cells. The stem cells would be imported from the United States.
Despite the lack of legal regulation on the matter, in September 2001 the National Swiss Fund authorized the project.
Subsequently, the Department of Health prepared a draft law to submit to Parliament. The legislation, which called for modifications to the current regulation, was tentatively backed last December by the National Council and the Council of States.
Immediately, organizations such as Yes to Life; Swiss Aid for Mother and Child; and Human Life International-Switzerland mobilized against the measure, collecting 85,470 signatures calling for a referendum.
The new law would prohibit the commercial exploitation of embryonic stem cells and embryos, as well as the patenting of embryonic stem cells, stem cellular culture lines, and the creation of embryos for research or clones.
But it would allow researchers to use certain "spare" embryos conserved in centers for artificial insemination. The previous law provided for their being allowed to die.
Officials estimate that there are now 1,500 "spare" embryos in Switzerland and every year some 200 embryos are produced.
According to the federal Constitution and the law on assisted procreation, "the production of embryos is allowed only for purposes of procreation," and prohibits "the obtaining of cells from an embryo produced in vitro," the Swiss bishops conference (CVS) said in a statement on its Web page.
"Normally, the CVS does not give pointers on how to vote," the bishops said. In this case, however, "a fundamental issue of bioethics is involved relating to the dignity and intangibility of human life," they added.
The bishops' Bioethics Commission has written a booklet explaining what is involved in embryonic stem cell research.
"The law relative to research on embryonic stem cells is unacceptable legislation," the episcopal note continues. For "ethical reasons" the bishops reject the present law "because it allows the use, and therefore the suppression, of embryos for scientific ends."
"The CVS appreciates medical research and, therefore, supports research, which is more promising, on adult stem cells" that may be obtained "without causing harm to the person" and thus represents "an acceptable ethical alternative."