William Batz, who has a doctorate in philosophy and is the secretary for social concerns at the Diocese of Pittsburgh, recently answered questions from the Pittsburgh Catholic on stem cell research from a Catholic perspective.
What are stem cells? Is the Catholic Church opposed to stem cell research?
Stems cells are relatively unspecialized cells that can divide and make more stem cells or any number of cells with more specialized functions. A stem cell in our blood can make new red blood cells, for example, or white blood cells or other kinds of cells, depending on what the body needs.
The church is not at all opposed to stem cell research using cells obtained from adult tissue, umbilical cord blood or other sources that pose no moral problem. Useful stem cells have been derived from bone marrow, blood, muscle, fat, nerves and even teeth. Some of these cells have already been used to treat a wide variety of diseases. Thousands of lives have been saved by adult stem cells, most often in the form of “bone marrow transplants” for leukemia and other conditions, where the active ingredient in the bone marrow is stem cells.
Adult stem cells have been used already to help people with Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, lupus, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, sickle cell anemia and dozens of other conditions. Research on adult stem cells shows the most promise. Advances in deriving stem cells from adult tissue – so-called induced pluripotent stem cells – may actually make embryonic stem-cell research obsolete before long.
Why is the church opposed to embryonic stem-cell research?
The church will always raise a prophetic voice to defend the sanctity of human life, and to oppose the destruction of innocent human life for any reason. Embryonic stem cells generally come from embryos that are five to seven days old. The process of extracting stem cells located in the inner mass of the embryo necessarily kills the newly formed human being.
Those who propose to harvest stem cells by destroying human life in the embryo would like us to think that human embryos do not merit the same respectful treatment that society accords to human life at later stages. Early embryos do not have faces or eyes, though they are precisely as human as the rest of us. The science of embryology makes it clear that human embryos are human beings, not plants or other animals. Each of us was once an embryo – a small cluster of cells sitting on the point of a sewing pin. Because human life in embryonic form is different in size and appearance from life in later stages, advocates of embryonic research are eager to portray this human life as different from the rest of us, and hence fair game for destruction at the hands of other humans who are no longer embryos themselves.
By contrast, the church insists that all human beings should be treated with respect for their life. It is not moral to destroy some human lives in the interests of others. With good reason our society reacted with horror at stories of live human experimentation in the Nazi camps years ago. Instinctively, most of us know that it is gravely immoral to mutilate or destroy human life in order to pursue scientific research.
The advancement of science is a noble goal, but science without ethics can become a threat to the dignity of the human person. The choice is not between science and “ideology,” as some claim, but between science that is ethically responsible and science that is not.
Some frozen embryos will die anyway. Why is it wrong to try to get something good out of them?
We will all die anyway, but that gives no one the right to kill us first. Some embryos are left over from in vitro techniques and unable to survive, but one bad choice does not justify another wrong choice to kill them for research, or to make taxpayers pay for such destruction. Trying to justify experiments on human beings who will die anyway poses a threat to death row prisoners, terminally ill patients and others. If it is legitimate to harvest cells from embryos that will die anyway, why isn’t it legitimate to harvest organs from those in hospice care, for example? Do we have the right to accelerate another person’s death because we have good uses for their body parts?
Doesn’t a ban on embryonic stem-cell research impede the discovery of new cures? Is the church telling us to choose the lives of embryos over the lives of suffering patients?
The church is calling us to respect the interests of both. We must help those who are suffering, but we may not use a good end to justify an evil means. Actually this is a false dichotomy. The claim that embryonic research will lead to new cures is largely speculation. Embryonic stem cells have never treated a human patient. Trials suggest that they are too genetically unstable and too likely to form lethal tumors to be used for treatment anytime soon. Yet, supporters are wedded to this approach, having invested a great deal of money and effort.
More than a few in the research community fear that federal money may now be diverted from adult stem-cell research with its proven successes to an avenue of research that has yet to produce one useful therapy, and one that may become obsolete before long anyhow. Scientists as well as moralists have asked whether the president’s decision to make federal funds available for embryonic research is a wise choice. It more likely reflects a triumph of money and politics over both scientific judgment and morality.
How is human cloning related to stem cell research?
In human cloning, the DNA from the nucleus of a person’s body cell is inserted into an egg whose own genetic material has been removed. The egg is then stimulated to begin to develop into an embryo. The cloned embryo would genetically be an almost twin to the person who supplied the body cell. It is a way of manufacturing a human being according to pre-set laboratory specifications. The cloned embryo can then be killed to harvest its stem cells, perhaps to treat the original cell donor with less likelihood of rejection. This is the ultimate reduction of a fellow human being to a mere means or instrument of other people’s goals.
Fortunately President (Barack) Obama has stated that he will not support human cloning. Many secular and religious groups, including some who disagree with the Catholic Church about abortion, have also raised serious moral concerns about cloning and embryonic stem cell usage.
Are Catholics alone in this fight?
Ultimately, the question of research on early and defenseless human life is not a concern of Catholics alone. Opposition to the treatment of early human life as a mere object or commodity in the laboratory transcends religious and political divisions. All people of good will understand that a civilization is defined by how it treats its most poor and vulnerable members, including the most vulnerable human life of all – the early child in its mother’s womb.
Catholics would add that human life is created, loved and redeemed by God. It is priceless at every stage. A human being in embryo form is no less precious to God than an elderly person taking her last breath.
This article appeared in the March 13, 2009, issue of the Pittsburgh Catholic.