HENRIETTA — There’s no such thing as a guilty embryo, according to Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, 40, a neuroscientist who is director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pa.
“The embryo is always, always innocent,” he said during an interview at a local restaurant.
Yet those arguing that it’s moral to harvest embryonic stem cells are treating embryos — innocent human beings — as if they can be killed and used for any purpose that might benefit humanity, he said.
The priest was in town April 25 to speak on “The Science and Ethics of Stem Cells and Cloning” at Monroe Community College during a visit sponsored by the pro-life group Feminists for Life of New York. In the past few years, the priest-scientist has become one of the U.S. Catholic Church’s leading spokesmen opposing embryonic stem-cell harvesting, appearing on radio and TV shows across the nation to discuss the topic.
Stem cells are master cells formed shortly after fertilization. These cells can develop into all the body’s various cell types — including brain, blood, muscle or skin. Some stem cells also remain present in the bodies of adults.
A number of scientists want to collect stem cells from aborted embryos and surplus embryos created for in-vitro fertilization, a procedure the Catholic Church also opposes. Father Pacholczyk stressed that the church does support using for treatments or research adult stem cells and those from umbilical-core blood. Such cells can be harvested from cord blood after a baby’s delivery or from the bodies of adults.
Father Pacholczyk, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., said scientists who argue for embryonic stem-cell harvesting and research downplay the humanity of the blastocyst, or five-day-old embryo, which has no discernible human features. However, such scientists are being disingenuous, he noted.
“Any scientist worth his salt knows that they were a blastocyst,” he said. Pro-choice scientists really believe “in some instances, it should be allowable to destroy another member of the species because of the great good it will do.”
He added that the role of scientists’ egos in the stem-cell debate should not be overlooked. Some scientists would love to receive Nobel Prizes for advancing embryonic stem-cell research, he said.
“It’s like splitting the atom,” he said. When asked why scientists can’t be content with focusing on adult stem-cell research, which raises no moral objections, Father Pacholcyzk chuckled and said that adult stem cells “just aren’t as glamorous as” embryonic ones.
Scientists “are human like the rest of us,” the priest said, adding that today’s society treats scientists as the ancients did their religious high priests. However, he said, many scientists lack the moral tools to tackle the stem-cell debate. Father Pacholcyzk said that scientists need to become grounded in philosophy, bioethics and religious traditions in order to handle the debate.
“These questions do deal with the interface between science and religion and values and technology,” he said. “These questions are critical for the future of mankind.”
Father Pacholczyk said he has been interested in the stem-cell debate since the mid-1990s, when scientists first cloned Dolly the sheep. The cloning controversy signaled that the debate over bioethics was going to become more prominent on the international scene, he said.
That debate came to New York state March 9, when a bill — A.6300 — was introduced in the Assembly, that would legalize cloning and fund an institute for stem-cell research to the tune of $300 million. The institute would conduct research on both adult and embryonic stem cells, according to information from the New York State Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes embryonic stem-cell harvesting. The conference noted that it does support the bill A.3346, also introduced in the Assembly earlier this year, which would promote medical research on cord-blood cells.