Embryonic Stem-Cell Research

There seems to be so much controversy over stem-cell research. It seems to be something good that can help people, yet I think the Church is against it. What do we believe as Catholics about this?

The issue concerning stem-cell research certainly is in the media spotlight and has become very highly politicized. The problem is not with the research itself, but from whom one obtains the stem cells.

Stem cells are like “master cells” that turn into other types of cells, like nerve, stomach or brain cells. If one obtains adult stem cells from sources like fat, bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and placenta blood, such research is morally permissible.

In fact, such research has shown promising results. To date, research involving non-embryonic stem cells has shown positive results in treatments for Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes and various forms of cancer. In all, there are 58 research reports with positive results concerning treatments for human patients using non-embryonic stem cells (National Right to Life). For example, Dr. Saul J. Sharkis of Johns Hopkins University recently published a study in which bone-marrow stem cells from animal donors were converted into healthy liver cells; he stated in The Washington Post that “It is mind-blowing stuff. I never would have thought this possible” (8/20/04).

This spring, researchers at Duke University Medical Center reported that infants suffering from Krabbe’s disease were injected with umbilical cord stem cells. (Krabbe’s disease is a fatal enzyme disorder which prevents nerve fibers in a baby’s brain from developing the necessary myelin insulation, thereby leading to paralysis, blindness, deafness, cognitive deterioration and death before the age of two.) Some of the babies showed positive results with the nerve cells regrowing or at least sustaining their myelin insulation. The oldest survivor is now age 6-and-a-half and is able to function like a normal child (New England Journal of Medicine). Without question, research using non-embryonic stem cells has shown great potential.

On the other hand, stem-cell research may also use embryonic stem cells. Herein lies the controversy at hand. These stem cells are obtained by producing an embryo in vitro (i.e. in the laboratory) by fertilizing an ovum, allowing it to develop for a few days in a petri dish, and then extracting the cells, thereby killing the embryo. Such research using embryonic stem cells is immoral.

The Catholic Church has consistently asserted that a human being must be respected as a person from the first moment of conception, the very first instant of existence. Each person is made in the image and likeness of God, and thereby has an inherent dignity beyond the rest of creation. The Declaration on Procured Abortion stated:

From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence…modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the program is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of human life, and each of its great capacities requires time…to find its place and to be in a position to act. (No. 12-13)

Moreover, we believe that Almighty God creates and infuses an immortal soul, which truly gives each of us that identity of one made in His image and likeness. Never should any person forget that he or she started life as that one unique cell at the moment of conception.

Therefore, with embryonic stem-cell research, the subject matter is a person who is purposely created to be destroyed. In 1961, Blessed Pope John XXIII taught, “The transmission of human life is entrusted by nature to a personal and conscious act and as such is subject to the all-holy laws of God: immutable and inviolable laws which must be recognized and observed” (Mater et Magistra). Such moral laws include the following: First, a child has a right to be respected as a person from the moment of conception until natural death. Second, a child has the right to be the fruit of the conjugal love of his parents, who are united in marriage. Third, a child has a right to be born. (Cf. Donum vitae, II, 8.) Given these moral laws, the production of human beings for the sake of experimentation, research, or the harvesting of organs is morally wrong. Human beings are not disposable biological material (Donum vitae, I, 5).

Nevertheless, a great push currently exists for embryonic stem-cell research. This push comes from celebrities with disabilities. Actors Christopher Reeves (now deceased) and Michael J. Fox have made many public appearances, even before Congress, promoting embryonic stem-cell research. In their consciences, they must not be aware that they desire the death of someone else to save their own lives. Yet, their pleas coupled with their conditions have pulled at the heart strings of many people who make moral decisions based on feelings rather than on rational thinking.

Keep in mind there is no real proof that embryonic stem-cell research will bring about any more benefit than non-embryonic stem-cell research. Dr. Ronald McKay, a stem-cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke stated, “People need a fairy tale,” commenting on why scientists have allowed society to believe wrongly that stem cells are likely to effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease. He added, “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

Dr. Michael Fumento stated, “Over the horizon are so-called adult stem cells, extracted from people of any age and from umbilical cords and placentas. Not only don’t they carry the moral baggage of embryonic stem cells, but also research with them is much further along. Unfortunately, embryonic stem-cell researchers have so powerful a PR machine that many influential people don’t even know there’s an alternative” (syndicated column, 6/22/04). Remember that even if embryonic stem-cell research were promising, it would remain immoral because it involves the purposeful creation and destruction of an innocent human being.

Nevertheless, the push now is to use embryos that are in frozen suspended animation in in vitro fertilization clinics. The argument is that these embryos will be destroyed anyway, so they ought to be used for beneficial research. First, these embryos should not have been created in the first place, as stated in the preceding principles. Second, these embryos are human beings. In 1995, 500,000 women were seeking to adopt a child; the better course of action would be to allow these embryos to be donated to and adopted by parents. Third, the utilitarian argument to use the embryos for research rather than destroy them is no different than allowing experiments on death row patients, or harvesting organs from the terminally ill or on those labeled as being “in a persistent vegetative state” — after all, they too are going to die anyway. The difference is one of perception, i.e. whether or not the unborn child, even in the embryonic stage, is a child or not. However, when society deems that life is not sacred from the first moment of conception, when does it become sacred? Moreover, at the other end of the continuum of life, when does it cease to be sacred? Currently, organs are being taken from people who are dying before they are truly dead, and now people like Terry Schiavo can be starved and dehydrated to death.

While we may have the technology “to do” something, we do not necessarily have the moral mandate “to do” something. Just because we can do it, does not mean it ought to be done. Researchers cannot simply think and act as though they are free to do anything without being subject to moral parameters. We find ourselves slipping further down the slope of morality: first came the legislation and proliferation of contraception, then abortion, then in vitro fertilization, the cloning of animals and now embryonic stem-cell research. One also cannot ignore the attempts to clone a human being, the proliferation of doctor assisted suicide, and as with Terri Schiavo, court-mandated death.

The moral laws have been abandoned. Pope John Paul II in his great encyclical “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae) taught:

The first and fundamental step toward this cultural transformation consists in forming consciences with regard to the incomparable and inviolable worth of every human life. It is of the greatest importance to re-establish the essential connection between life and freedom. There are inseparable goods: where one is violated, the other also ends up being violated. There is no true freedom where life is not welcomed and loved…. No less critical in the formation of conscience is the recovery of the necessary link between freedom and truth…. When freedom is detached from objective truth, it becomes impossible to establish personal rights on a first rational basis; and the ground is laid for society to be at the mercy of the unrestrained will of individuals or the oppressive totalitarianism of public authority. (No. 96)

The time has come for true Catholics and all Christians to promote genuine freedom and truth in the defense of all human life.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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