Stem-cell research is the focus of an ever-increasing national debate that, to my mind, is largely a phantom debate. By “phantom debate,” I mean that a great deal of information is not being included as the issue is debated, so the choice we have to make between being for or against stem-cell research is a false choice. When the full truth of the issue is considered, a third choice emerges that is filled with blessings, hope, life and justice.
I’m writing as a pastor, not as a professional ethicist or scientist. I’ve relied heavily on work by Bishop Matthew Clark (July 6, 2005, “Along the Way” column, www.catholiccourier.com), Bishop Howard Hubbard (The Evangelist, October 2005, www.rcda.org), The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (www.cbhd.org, especially Linda K. Bevington’s article, “Stem Cell Research and ‘Therapeutic’ Cloning: A Christian Analysis”) as well as public presentations by Dr. David Prentice (www.stemcellresearch.org) and Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator.
Like many people, I had previously received most of my information about stem-cell research from the evening news and the occasional debate on cable-news programs. Here is summary of what, until recently, I believed to be true about the issue.
I was right about there being two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult. I knew that the method used in obtaining an embryonic stem cell involves killing an embryo. I was wrong when I thought that adult stem cells were rare, hard to get at and could only be taken from an adult at a high health risk to that person.
I was also under the false impression that adult stem cells held far less potential than embryonic stem cells for producing medical treatments or cures and that the scientific community had discounted adult stem-cell use as not worth pursuing.
I wrongly thought that the benefits of stem cells were strictly theoretical and that no one had actually been helped by their use. It turns out that this is true when talking about embryonic stem cells. However, there has already been a great deal of success with adult stem cells.
Since I thought that only embryonic stem cells were being considered, I was under the false impression that the choice, while being very painful, was clear: Since we as Catholics believe human life begins at the moment of conception, and embryonic stem cells are obtained at the cost of the life of a human embryo, I had to be against stem-cell research and deny many people’s hopes for treatment and cures. The truth, however, is that while we do have to strongly oppose the use of embryonic stem cells, we also can wholeheartedly support the moral and ethical use of adult stem cells.
The cell is what makes up each of the more than 200 kinds of tissue found in the human body. Generally, cells do the one thing they are meant to do. That is, for example, brain cells can only be brain cells. Stem cells, however, have two important abilities that make them different than other cells. First, a single stem cell can self-replicate into a large number of new stem cells.
Secondly, stem cells, if they are stimulated by the correct biological signal from the environment around them, can develop into other types of tissue cells. These tissue cells can then potentially be used in the treatment and cure of many diseases and injuries.
Embryonic stem cells are extracted from live human embryos, resulting in the deaths of the embryos. The bottom line regarding embryonic stem cells is that there is no morally acceptable way to obtain them and, to date, no illnesses or injuries have been treated or cured with their use.
Now we get into the good news. Adult stem cells are found in every human being. So, even newborns have adult stem cells. Adult stem cells are abundant and can be found in places such as a person’s bone marrow, blood, brain, fat, umbilical cord, placenta and even hair follicles. These cells are gathered at minimal risk to human life and are being used in research with remarkable results. While there have been no complete cures, thousands of patients around the world, including people in our own diocese, have been successfully treated with adult stem cells. There are 65 current, documented clinical uses of adult stem cells, including the treatment of spinal-cord injuries and cancer. Most often, patients are given adult stem cells from their own body, so the chance of their immune systems rejecting them is small.
The church fully supports adult stem-cell research. It is morally acceptable and filled with hope.
Finding the truth regarding stem-cell research has been a freeing experience. I am no longer faced with awful choices, but can now strongly support a beautiful melding of science and God’s healing power. I hope the truth moves you to take the following actions, which I have adapted from Bishop Hubbard’s article.
* Comfort, help and pray for families struggling with disease, disability and suffering.
* Ask God to bless those involved in adult stem-cell research and its promotion. May God prosper the work of their hands. Also, pray for the softening of the hearts of those involved in embryonic stem-cell research and its promotion.
* Support proposals for increased adult stem-cell research and funding.
* This debate is shaping up at both the state and federal levels. Let your state and federal legislators know of your opposition to any bills that would allow cloning or embryonic stem-cell research. Urge them to be more publicly vocal about the moral use of adult stem cells.
* Continue to acquaint yourself and others with the moral and scientific dimensions of the stem-cell debate. The best way to do this would be to attend a diocesan-sponsored presentation. Online sources also are helpful. In addition to the sources cited at the top of this article, the Stem Cell Position Statement — a thorough and powerful exploration of both the legal and ethical dimensions of this issue — may be found at www.cbhd.org. I also recommend New York Catholic Conference’s Web site at www.nyscatholic.org and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Web site at www.usccb.org/prolife.
Father Niven is pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Victor. In January, the parish hosted a presentation on stem-cell research.