The Vatican’s Stem Cell Agenda

The Vatican announced last week that it would be contributing to stem-cell research, offering almost $3 million to a worldwide team of researchers at the University of Maryland, Italy’s University of Salerno, Bambino Gesu hospital, and the Italian national health agency, Istituto Superiore di Sanita. The researchers are investigating the potential uses of intestinal stem cells to treat various disorders. The stem cells being studied, however, are adult cells, the use of which is considered ethical according to Church teaching, unlike the embryonic stem cells in which a human embryo must be destroyed in order for cells to be obtained. Predictably, the Vatican grant has been viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Debra Mathews of Johns Hopkins tells the Baltimore Sun that she worries about a conflict of interest, as the Vatican has a “vested interest” in adult over embryonic stem cell research; and the Associated Press reports the comments of Dr. George Daley of the Children’s Hospital in Boston:

I applaud the Vatican for being interested in supporting biomedical research,” Daley said Friday, “but I can’t help but think there’s an agenda.

If Dr. Daley suspects an agenda behind the Vatican’s grant, I suspect he’s right. Yet the agenda is only in favor of ethical and effective medical research. To imply a sneaky subterfuge in the Vatican’s active preference for adult over embryonic stem cell research is to suggest that there is something untoward in an organization supporting activities it considers ethical over those it considers unethical. In those terms, the suspicion cast on the Vatican’s grant seem odd.

In order to highlight the absurd nature of the skepticism here, let’s examine a parallel scenario: organ donation. The Vatican supports organ donation, so long as it is done ethically. In November of 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave an address to an international congress on organ donation, praising donation as a “unique act of charity” and noting that:

Tissue and organ transplants represent a great conquest of medical science, and are certainly signs of hope for those suffering serious, and often grave, illnesses. If we turn our gaze to the entire world, it is easy to confirm the numerous and complex cases in which, thanks to the technique of organ transplantation, many people have overcome extremely grave illnesses, and in them the joy of life has been restored. This would never have happened if the commitment of the doctors and the competence of the researchers had not been able to count upon the generosity and altruism of those who have donated organs.

Organ donation, the Pope notes, is an act of charity that serves to save lives. Yet in the same address he offers some further considerations:

Any reasons for the buying and selling of organs, or the adoption of utilitarian and discriminatory criteria, would clash in such a way with the meaning of gift that they would be invalidated, qualifying them as illicit moral acts.

Thus however good it may be, it is crucial that organ donation is done ethically. Even the most enthusiastic advoocate of legitimate organ donation would be beyond the pale to suggest that organs should be commandeered from unwilling, healthy patients, sacrificing their lives for medical advancement. The pope’s warning merely emphasizes this common moral intuition. The key here is that the case of embryonic stem cells is not only similar to the case of organ donation, it is in moral terms exactly identical, as the pope notes in the same address:

The same ethical principle is to be repeated when one wishes to touch upon creation and destroy the human embryo destined for a therapeutic purpose. The simple idea of considering the embryo as “therapeutic material” contradicts the cultural, civil and ethical foundations upon which the dignity of the person rests.

In both the case of an organ stolen from a healthy patient, and in the use of an embryo as a source of stem cells, a human life is destroyed. Medical ethics do not accept the destructive harvesting of materials from one healthy human being in order to service another, yet the Church’s insistence that this is exactly what is being done when embryonic stem cells are used is set aside as ignorance.

Be that as it may, it makes no sense for anyone who claims to uphold any standard of medical ethics to consider the Vatican’s promotion of adult stem cells over embryonic stem cells as prejudiced in any negative way. It is prejudiced in exactly the way all medical practice claims to be — that is, prejudiced towards the ethical. And while the Vatican’s public relations have been noticeable inept of late, I would encourage Rome to respond to its critics by embracing this prejudice and this agenda openly and boldly. Yes, there is an agenda here, and it is an agenda of life.


Michael Baruzzini is a writer on Catholic and science issues, and his writing may be found online at He lives with his wife and children in Virginia."

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