Lifting Limits on Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Politics over Science and Ethics

March 09, 2009

In a column to be published in the March 12 Catholic Standard newspaper, Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl called the decision by President Barack Obama to void restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research “disheartening.” He went on to explain the Church’s support for ethical scientific research, such as adult stem cell research, noting its success over the past decades in addressing disease and illness. The column follows.

Lifting Limits on Embryonic Stem Cell Research:
Politics over Science and Ethics

The announcement that President Barack Obama has signed an executive order voiding restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is very disheartening news. It is described by Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, as a “sad victory of politics over science and ethics.” Human life is not to be treated as a commodity, as a raw material to be used in science experiments, but as the gift of God that it is.

What is particularly distressing about the President’s decision is that it is not necessary. Ethical alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, such as the use of adult stem cell tissue and umbilical cord blood where there is no destruction of innocent human life, already exist and have been used successfully for decades.

The Catholic Church supports scientific advances, but the decision to move forward should not be based on whether something can be done, but whether it should be done. As a society, we are called to protect the dignity of all human life and therefore must oppose embryonic stem cell research.

While stem cell research may not be on the list of daily concerns that many of us face, it is of such significance that we need to understand fully the realities and consequences. Decisions made now could result in a principle that claims that we are free to take another human life if we deem it justified by the end result. To concede that the end – even potential relief to illnesses and injuries – justifies the means is to set a truly dangerous principle.

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. A tiny speck to the human eye, it nonetheless has the potential to develop into a range of different tissues and 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 beginning of human life, after the sperm and egg join to form an embryo, there come into being human cells that scientists tell us are undifferentiated. They are called “embryonic stem cells” because they are located in a human embryo. These cells are believed to have the potential to become a wide variety of cell types, which is why they are of interest to some scientists. Many consider stem cells acquired from embryos that have been classified as “leftovers” from in vitro fertilization or that will be cloned specifically to be research subjects to be fair game for research purposes.

Yet, embryos are not the only source of stem cells and arguably are not the best source. Alternative, ethical 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). Scientists assert that not only are adult stem cells more readily available, they also are more effective. Adult stem cells have begun to help patients with over 70 different diseases and injuries.

Stem cells derived from placental or umbilical cord blood also have proven to be remarkably effective. Originally it was theorized that stem cells from these sources would be ineffective because they are limited in their ability to become various types of cells. However, these stem cells have been successfully differentiated into needed tissue and now are healing human illnesses.

Science cannot deny that human life begins at conception. At the heart of the moral issue involving embryonic stem cell research is the reality that an embryo is killed so that his or her stem cells can be used for research by scientists seeking to “harvest” cells for the good of someone else. Since there is an undeniable continuity of life, beginning at conception through birth and on through natural death, at what point do we permit harvesting body parts of a living human, ending his or her life, for someone else?

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. We all long for cures and therapies that can overcome physical afflictions. 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.

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Susan Gibbs
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