FAIRPORT — As stem-cell research has garnered greater attention in the past few years, the bulk of mainstream media coverage has reported that the Catholic Church opposes this new medical technology, Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Schoelles told the several dozen people who gathered at Church of the Assumption Sept. 21 to learn more about "Stem-Cell Research and the Catholic Conscience."
In reality, however, the church only opposes research on one type of stem cell — embryonic stem cells — but making this distinction is complicated, said Sister Schoelles, president and associate professor of Christian ethics at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.
Sister Schoelles began her presentation with a quick overview of the basics. Most adults know that their bodies are composed of cells, which have different appearances and functions based on their locations in the body, she said. Thus, skin cells look and act differently than blood cells and hair cells.
Stem cells, however, are unique.
"Stem cells are undifferentiated. They have the potential to become lots of different cells," such as brain or kidney cells, Sister Schoelles said. "That’s why stem cells are valuable."
There are two main types of stem cells, she continued. So called "adult" stem cells are found in the blood and tissue of adults and children, as well as in the blood and placenta of newly born babies. These cells are pluripotent, which means that they can differentiate into a limited range of other cell types, Sister Schoelles said.
Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are found only in human embryos. These cells are totipotent, which means they are capable of becoming any kind of cell or tissue.
"Pluripotent aren’t as (versatile) as totipotent, because pluripotent can only become some types of tissue. Pluri aren’t as good as toti, but they’re still great," she said.
The problem with embryonic stem cells, she added, is that the process of extracting the stem cells effectively destroys the embryo. Since the Catholic Church teaches that human life must be protected from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death, it views destroying an embryo as taking a human life.
"That’s where for the Catholic Church the ethical problem or drama comes in," Sister Schoelles said. "There’s no ethical problem at all in cultivating adult stem cells. Nobody is opposing adult stem-cell research. It’s just the embryonic ones that cause all the trouble."
A number of celebrities, politicians and doctors strongly support research on embryonic stem cells because they believe the totipotent stem cells are more likely than their pluripotent counterparts to bring about cures for cancer and other diseases, she said. Some proponents of embryonic stem-cell research have even condemned the church, accusing it of turning its back on people suffering from devastating diseases.
"Some of it has been sensationalized. You would think there have been many medical advances because of the use of embryonic stem cells," Sister Schoelles said. Yet, in fact, "there has not been one."
Adult stem cells, by contrast, have been used successfully to treat tens of thousands of patients suffering from such health problems as leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, heart attacks and spinal-cord damage, she said, and the church fully supports research and treatments that use adult stem cells.
Even if embryonic stem-cell research had produced successful medical treatments, however, the church still could not condone destroying an embryo in order to help others live.
"If we look at what’s happening with embryonic stem-cell research, that’s taking that individual’s life for the good of others," Sister Schoelles said. "It’s always been ethically reprehensible to cause one person’s death for the benefit of another."