By OSV staff - OSV Newsweekly, 2/6/2011
If you were to ask what the No. 1 misunderstood Church teaching today is, even for practicing Catholics, stem-cell research would make an unusually strong candidate.
Many Catholics simply assume all stem-cell research is a no-no; even if they’re not exactly sure why.
But the fact is the Church supports — including financially — the majority of stem-cell research being done today, and supports the only research that currently is being converted into therapies that already have cured thousands of people from scores of diseases and injuries.
The only research in this field that Catholics find morally objectionable is that which harvests the stem cells from living human embryos — thereby causing the embryos’ death. It is a constant of Catholic moral teaching — and of natural moral law, in general — that one can never directly take the life of an innocent human being, no matter how good one’s intentions or how much good one hopes to attain from it.
But most of the stem-cell research being done uses “adult” stem cells, meaning they’ve been harvested from adult tissue, umbilical cord blood, bone marrow and other tissue — without harming the human being from which they come.
Confused? Or just want to make sure you have the latest info? Read on.
Here are 10 myths that one of the Church’s leading bioethicists, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, commonly hears from Catholics about stem-cell research. He prepared these responses for OSV Newsweekly.
Father Pacholczyk earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the director of education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pa. See www.ncbcenter.org
Stem cells only come from embryos
In fact, stem cells can be taken from umbilical cords, the placenta, amniotic fluid, adult tissues and organs such as bone marrow, fat from liposuction, regions of the nose and even from cadavers up to 20 hours after death.
The Church is against stem-cell research
There are various categories or sources of stem cells, including stem cells from embryos, stem cells from miscarriages, umbilical cord stem cells, adult stem cells and stem cells from cellular reprogramming (see Myth 7 on Page 13). The Church really opposes only one of these categories — namely, embryonic stem-cell research, because the cells are taken from embryos that are about 5 days old, invariably destroying that early human life. The fact is that the Catholic Church strongly supports the majority of the categories of research involving stem cells, and supports every ethical form of stem-cell research.
Embryonic stem-cell research shows the most promise
Up to now, no human being has ever been cured of a disease using embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, have already cured thousands of patients. Various cancers, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disorders, ocular disorders, immunological problems, neural degenerative diseases, anemias and other blood conditions, metabolic disorders, liver diseases and bladder diseases have been treated; in fact, about 70 conditions and disorders have been treated with adult stem cells (see: osv.cm/gIlqFS ). Their effectiveness comes from the fact that they are part of the natural repair mechanisms of the adult body, while embryonic stem cells belong in an embryo, not in an adult body, where they often end up generating tumors and being rejected as foreign tissue by the recipient.
Embryonic stem-cell researchis against the law
There is currently no federal law against destroying human embryos for research purposes. Anyone using private funds is free to pursue it. President George W. Bush first made federal funds available for limited research on human embryonic stem cells. President Barack Obama increased funding levels and allowed for greatly expanded research in this area. The Obama decision is currently being challenged in court as a possible violation of a broader ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos.
Therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning are fundamentally different
The creation of cloned embryos either to make a baby or to harvest cells occurs by the same series of technical steps. The only difference between the two types of cloning is what will be done with the cloned human embryo that is produced: will it be given the protection of a woman’s womb in order to be born, or will it be destroyed for its stem cells? Both forms of cloning raise grave moral objections.
Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is different from cloning
In fact, “somatic cell nuclear transfer” is simply cloning by a different name. The end result is still a cloned embryo.
By doing somatic cell nuclear transfer, we can directly produce tissues or organs without having to clone an embryo
In fact, somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning) always produces an embryo first, from which stem cells may be destructively harvested. Thanks to recent advances, however, it is now possible to use genes and/or chemicals to “reprogram” a regular body cell (like a skin cell) into a stem cell (called an “induced pluripotent stem cell”), without ever creating an embryo. This approach does not raise significant moral objections as a means for obtaining stem cells.
Every body cell, or somatic cell, is somehow an embryo and thus a human life
People sometimes argue: “Every cell in the body has the potential to become an embryo when we do cloning. Does that mean that every time we wash our hands and are shedding thousands of cells, we are killing life?” This argument overlooks the important biological difference between a regular body cell, and one whose nuclear material has been fused with an unfertilized egg (thereby creating an embryo by cloning). A normal skin cell will only give rise to more skin cells, while an embryo will give rise to the entire adult organism. Skin cells are not potential adults. Skin cells are potentially only more skin cells. Only embryos are potential adults.
Because frozen embryos may one day end up being discarded by somebody, it is allowable, and maybe even laudable, to violate and destroy those embryos
The moral analysis of what we may permissibly do with an embryo doesn’t depend on its otherwise “going to waste,” nor on the incidental fact that those embryos are “trapped” in deep freeze. If we imagine a coal mine with miners who are permanently trapped deep inside the earth through no fault of their own, with the certainty that they are all going to die anyway, that would not make it OK to send a remote control robotic device to forcibly harvest organs from those miners and cause their death for the benefit of other suffering individuals who might need transplants.
Because large numbers of embryos generated during marital acts may be lost from a woman’s body and die naturally, that makes it OK for us to create and destroy embryos in research.
What Mother Nature does and what man may do are two distinct realities that should never be confused. A tsunami that tragically claims many human lives may occur naturally, but such an occurrence does not somehow allow us to take many human lives directly by, for example, shooting into a crowd of people.
Stem cells are among the body’s most versatile components, reservoirs capable of growing into virtually any other part of the body.
Umbilical cord blood
◗ Contains stem cells that are considered younger and more adaptable than embryonic stem cells
◗ Have been used in transplant procedures for less than a decade
Adult stem cells
◗ Surgery abroad on patients with spinal cord injuries uses stem cells extracted from nasal cavity
◗ Bone and stem-cell transplants use cells derived from marrow extracted from spongy hollow of bone
◗ From in-vitro fertilization; the early blastocyst cells develop in the first five days after fertilization
◗ Can become many types of adult cells; touted as having potential as therapy for a wide range of problems, yet there is no scientific evidence where embryonic cells have been used successfully in animal trials.
The issue of stem-cell research does not force us to choose between science and ethics, much less between science and religion. It presents a choice as to how our society will pursue scientific and medical progress. Will we ignore ethical norms and use some of the most vulnerable human beings as objects, undermining the respect for human life that is at the foundation of the healing arts? Such a course, even if it led to rapid technical progress, would be a regress in our efforts to build a society that is fully human. Instead we must pursue progress in ethically responsible ways that respect the dignity of each human being. Only this will produce cures and treatments that everyone can live with.
Embryonic stem cells - 0
Adult stem cells - over 73
CANCERS: Brain cancer, Retinoblastoma, Ovarian cancer,Skin cancer: Merkel cell, Testicular cancer, Tumors abdominal organs, Lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia, Multiple myeloma, Breast cancer,Ewing’s sarcoma
AUTO-IMMUNE DISEASES: Diabetes Type I (Juvenile), Systemic lupus, Crohn’s disease, Rheumatoid arthritis, Multiple sclerosis
CARDIOVASCULAR: Acute heart damage, Chronic coronary artery disease
OCULAR: Corneal regeneration
IMMUNODEFICIENCIES: Severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome
NEURAL DEGENERATIVE DISEASES: Parkinson’s disease, Spinal cord injury, Stroke damage
BLOOD CONDITIONS: Sickle cell anemia, Chronic Epstein-Barr infection
WOUNDS AND INJURIES: Limb gangrene, Jawbone replacement, Skull bone repair, Osteopetrosis
LIVER DISEASE: Liver cirrhosis
BLADDER DISEASE: End-stage bladder disease
For a full list and references see www.stemcellresearch.org/facts/asc-refs.pdf.
It now seems undeniable that once we cross the fundamental moral line that prevents us from treating any fellow human being as a mere object of research, there is no stopping point. The only moral stance that affirms the human dignity of all of us is to reject the first step down this path. We therefore urge Catholics and all people of good will to join us in reaffirming, precisely in this context of embryonic stem cell research, that “the killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act” (Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life [Evangelium Vitae], No. 63).
— On Embryonic Stem Cell Research, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2008
Last fall, Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center announced the establishment of Maryland’s first public umbilical-cord-blood banking program.
Through the program, women giving birth at Mercy have the option of donating their babies’ umbilical-cord blood to be listed on the National Marrow Donor Program registry for use by patients in need of life-saving transplants. In 2009, the National Marrow Donor Program was able to facilitate about 5,000 transplants worldwide.
The Maryland Catholic Conference was a driving force behind establishing the partnership between Mercy and Community Blood Services. There are 18 public banks in the country.
A federal appeals court last fall lifted an injunction that had briefly stopped federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. The Sept. 28 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit allowed funding for the research to continue while a lawsuit filed by Drs. James L. Sherley and Theresa Deisher proceeds.
The two researchers, who work with adult stem cells, have challenged the Obama administration’s guidelines on stem-cell funding, saying they faced the possibility of losing funding from the National Institutes of Health when NIH funding for embryonic stem-cell research was expanded.
Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia had granted the injunction because he said the guidelines violated the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which prevents federal funding of research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed.
Women giving birth by cesarean section at a Catholic hospital in Florida can contribute to research that could benefit burn victims, diabetics and wounded soldiers.
With the permission of the new mothers, St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital in Tampa has been collecting placentas for use in stem-cell research by the regenerative medicine company Stemnion.
Each placenta collected has the capacity to yield several hundred million cells and can produce many doses of the investigational medicine that the company has in the trial phase, according to Stemnion.
Foundations affiliated with the Pontifical Council for Culture and NeoStem, an international biopharmaceutical company, last spring announced they are work together to educate Catholics and others around the world about the benefits of adult stem-cell research. One of the first fruits of the collaboration will be an international, interdisciplinary conference at the Vatican later this year on adult stem-cell research.
— Catholic News Service
Methods which do not cause serious harm to the subject from whom the stem cells are taken are to be considered licit. This is generally the case when tissues are taken from: a) an adult organism; b) the blood of the umbilical cord at the time of birth; c) fetuses who have died of natural causes.
The obtaining of stem cells from a living human embryo, on the other hand, invariably causes the death of the embryo and is consequently gravely illicit: “Research, in such cases, irrespective of efficacious therapeutic results, is not truly at the service of humanity. In fact, this research advances through the suppression of human lives that are equal in dignity to the lives of other human individuals and to the lives of the researchers themselves. History itself has condemned such a science in the past and will condemn it in the future, not only because it lacks the light of God but also because it lacks humanity.”
— Instruction Dignitas Personae (“On Certain Bioethical Questions”), Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2008
Read a stem-cell treatment success story here
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