Archbishop Wuerl: Ethical Reflections on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

July 20, 2006

The following column by Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl is published in the July 20, 2006 issue of the Catholic Standard newspaper:

Ethical Reflections on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, STD
Archbishop of Washington

Modern science has developed a remarkable technology called stem cell research. This new medical capability currently claims to treat a number of illnesses and injuries and holds out promise for more potential cures. Data indicate that significant strides have been made utilizing adult stem cells.

Today the argument is made that it is not enough to use adult stem cells but that we must explore research that uses embryonic stem cells.

While stem cell research may not be at the top of the list of concerns that many of us face in our day-to-day life, it is nonetheless of such significance that we all need to understand fully its realities as well as its consequences. Decisions made now could establish a principle that asserts and endorses that we are free to use the drastic means of taking another human life, if we deem that the end result justifies that dire action. To concede that the end – even if it is potential relief to long-standing illnesses and injuries – justifies the means is to set a truly dangerous principle.

What is stem cell research? Why are there differing opinions on whether it is good or bad? Should there be government control over this type of scientific tampering with the origins of human life?

What is a Stem Cell?

A stem cell is a cell that can renew itself and give rise to one or more specialized cell types with specific functions in the body. While it is a tiny speck to the human eye, it nonetheless has the potential to develop into a range of different tissues and is able to serve as a sort of repair system for the human body. The science of cell therapy concentrates on ways to replace, repair or enhance the biological function of damaged tissues or organs by transplantation of isolated or characterized cells. Thus, we hear so much about the potential for all kinds of cures and health care advances.


At the very beginning of human life, after the sperm and egg come together to form an embryo, there come into being human cells that scientists tell us are undifferentiated. Stem cells at this stage are called “embryonic stem cells” because they are located in a human embryo. Stem cells from human embryos are believed to have the potential to become a wide variety of cell types. Stem cells, which are acquired from embryos that have been classified as “left overs” from in vitro fertilization clinics or embryos that will be cloned specifically to be research subjects, are considered by many to be fair game for destruction for research purposes.

…And Adult Stem Cells

Embryos are not the only source of stem cells and arguably not the best source. A number of alternative sources of stem cells offer more realistic hope for cures and treatments of diseases and illnesses. Stem cells from adult tissues have the potential to yield specialized cell types of the tissue from which it originated such as liver (hepatic), brain (neural), or blood (haematopoietic). These are called adult stem cells and scientists today assert that not only are adult stem cells more readily available, they also are more effective.

Stem cells derived from placental or umbilical cord blood have proven to be remarkably effective, similar to other adult stem cells. Originally it was theorized that stem cells from these various sources would be ineffective because they are limited in their ability to become various types of cells. However, these stem cells from alternative sources have been successfully differentiated into needed tissue and are already healing human illnesses. According to the most recent research, adult stem cells have begun to help patients with over 70 different diseases and injuries.

The Catholic Church’s Moral Teaching

Adult stem cell research holds out the promise of a large step forward in the healing process. This research has been described as the most promising advance in medical science in the last decades. The Catholic Church is not opposed to the development of these therapies and remedies for a host of ailments and deficiencies that afflict the body. Stem cell research using stem cells from ethical sources is a continuation of the work that has been done for millennia by physicians and researchers seeking cures for illness and healing for the sick.

What the Church, as the conscience of society, calls for is moral and ethical reflection on the use of human embryos for stem cell research. No scientific, technological, or medical advances should take place divorced from moral and ethical consideration.

Given the force of demonstrable physical data, science cannot deny that we are dealing with the continuum of human life. Therefore, we are not free to treat embryos the same way that we would treat a cancer tissue, or even a laboratory rat.

The Ethical Issue Involved

At the heart of the moral issue involving embryonic stem cell research is the fact that the embryo is killed so that his or her stem cells can be used for research. Current literature already speaks about destroying the embryo as necessary to “harvest” useful cells for the good of someone else. Since there is an undeniable continuity beginning at conception through birth and the continuing development of life until the natural death of the human person, at what point do we permit harvesting of parts of that living human for someone else?

Embryonic Life is Human

Embryos are at the very beginning of the whole process of human life. We, as human beings, in solidarity with that life, even though it is tiny and undifferentiated at this point, are not free to view it simply as a commodity for our convenience or benefit. When we enter the sacred precincts of human life – when we approach the chamber of life – we are not the masters of the room. We are not the lords of the house of life. While we are called to use our abilities to help heal illness and sustain life, ultimately God alone has the right to determine who lives, who dies, and the life span of each person. We are stewards, not masters of human life. Even when we put on sterilized gloves and work with technologically advanced equipment we do not take on the mantle of arbiter of human life.

In response to the questions: “Why does the Church oppose embryonic stem cell research?” “What harm can it do?” and “Should government funding be used to advance this study?” the reply seems evident.

Living with the Consequences

Our basic human obligation to respect human life comes into force even when we are dealing with the initial stages of human life. Once we place into law the presumption that we can take innocent human life at whatever stage we determine, we put in motion a destructive force. That process can empty technology and scientific advancement of moral and ethical restraint. If our society announces that it will determine at what point a human life can be used for the benefit of another, then all that is left for the next generation to do is decide when – at what age – that principle is applied.

Already there are those who argue that since the embryo is going to be destroyed anyway, we should feel free to do with it what we will. Would that principle apply to anyone who is terminally ill? It is the same offensive principle that was used to exonerate human experimentation on prisoners in concentration camps.

There are those who maintain that scientific advances should not be restrained by moral compunction. We hear over and over the claim that much good will come from this research. The end, we are told, certainly justifies the means that are used. To abandon the longstanding moral imperative that the end does not justify the means puts us on a fast track careening towards moral anarchy.

The issue of embryonic stem cell research brings us face to face with a fundamental human moral principle and decision. We cannot allow our technology to outstrip our ethical reflection. The two need to move forward together. All our capability to develop and use technology and science must always be done within the context of God’s plan – the natural moral order. To be truly human means decisions should reflect the moral order and not be based on the appeal of what seems to work for me right now.

The Catholic Church brings a living ethical tradition to this and so many current issues. It does so with confidence because the Church’s moral reflection is guided by a wisdom rooted in God’s word and directed by God’s Spirit.

Technology can be a blessing yet, like all science, it requires ethical reflection on its use if it is to be truly at the service of all of us who struggle in the human condition. We all so much long for the cures and therapies that can overcome the physical afflictions of life. At the same time, we need as well to pray for guidance that what we do is what we ought to do. What raises our technological expertise to a truly human level is our capacity to reflect on the ethical and moral dimensions of what we do.

Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
[email protected]