Saving Lives Now and Later
by Archbishop Donald Wuerl

The ongoing debate over embryonic stem cell research often presents the issue in highly emotional terms. Selective language is used in an effort to tip the scales in favor of a perceived good or an end that justifies the means. We hear about all of the wonderful medical advances that might possibly result from this type of research and eventual therapy. The image of a child struggling with diabetes is placed in the balance against what is described as "just clumps of microscopic cells." One national news magazine dismissed the entire ethical and moral aspect of stem cell research by labeling one side "embryonic research" and the other "pro-life politics."


While stem cell research may not be at the top of the list of concerns we face today, it is nonetheless of such significance that we need to understand fully its realities and its consequences. Decisions made now by legislators, scientists and others could establish a principle which asserts and endorses that we are free to use the drastic means of taking another human life, if we decide that the end result justifies such dire action. To concede that the end -even if it is potential relief of long-standing illnesses and injuries - justifies the means is to send our children and grandchildren headlong down a slippery slope on a moral toboggan with neither a steering bar nor brakes.


Basic Questions and Answers


What is stem cell research? Why are there differing opinions on whether it is good or bad? Should there be government control over this type of scientific tampering with the origins of human life? Let's answer these questions. A stem cell is an unspecified cell that can renew itself and give rise to one or more specialized cell types that have specific functions in the body. While a stem cell is a tiny speck to the human eye, it nonetheless has the potential to develop into a range of different tissues and is able to serve as a sort of repair kit 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 very beginning of human life, after the male sperm cell and female egg cell come together to form an embryo, human cells come into being that scientists tell us "are undifferentiated. Stem cells at this stage are called "embryonic stem cells" because they are located in a human embryo. Stem cells from human embryos are believed to have the potential to become a wide variety of cell types. The stem cells acquired from embryos classified as "leftovers" from in vitro fertilization clinics, or from embryos that will be cloned specifically to serve as laboratory subjects, are considered fair game for destruction for research purposes.


Fortunately, the truth is that embryos are not the only source of stems cells, and they are clearly not the best source. There are a number of alternative sources of stem cells that offer a 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). These are called "adult stem cells," and scientists today assert that not only are adult stem cells more readily available, they are also more effective.


Stem cells derived from placental or umbilical cord blood have proven to be remarkably effective, similar to adult stem cells. Originally, it was theorized that stem cells from these various sources would be ineffective because they are limited in their ability to become various types of cells. However, alternative sources of stem cells have been successfully differentiated into needed tissue and are already healing human illnesses. According to recent research, adult stem cells have produced 140 successful treatments for 56 diseases.


In any number of states today, proposals are before voters for public funding of embryonic stem cell research, with promises of economic development and medical cures. Morally, ethically and humanly speaking, one cannot justify taking innocent human life for any alleged good that might come of it. But even pragmatically, the potential benefit of embryonic stem cell research is a poor argument for such funding. Research conducted with embryonic stem cells has yet to produce a single medical benefit to any patient anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, bills in various states propose to siphon off tax dollars that could be far better spent on more promising medical developments that do not carry dangerous moral and ethical consequences.


The Church’s Teaching


Adult stem cell research holds out the promise of a large step forward in healing diseases. This research has been described as the most promising advance in medical science in recent decades. The Catholic Church is not opposed to the development of these therapies and remedies. Stem cell research using stem cells from ethical sources is a continuation of the work that has been done for millennia by physicians and researchers seeking cures. What the Church, as the conscience of society, calls for is moral and ethical reflection on the use of human embryos for stem cell research. No scientific, technological or medical advances should take place divorced from human conscience and legitimate moral and ethical guidelines.


Given the demonstrable physical data of DNA and other biological evidence, science cannot deny that embryos are part of the continuum of human life. Therefore, we are not free to treat embryos the same way as we would treat a cancer tissue or even a laboratory rat. At the heart of the moral issue involving embryonic stem cell research is the fact that an embryo is killed so that his or her stem cells can be used for research. Current literature already speaks about destroying the embryo as a necessary step to "harvest" useful cells for the good of someone else. Since there is an undeniable continuity beginning at conception until the natural death of the human person, at what point do we permit harvesting of parts of one living human for the benefit of another?


Technology Must Not Trump Morality


Embryos are at the very beginning of the entire process of life. As fellow human beings in solidarity with that life, we cannot view embryos simply as a commodity for our convenience or benefit. When we enter the sacred precincts of human life - when we approach the chamber of life - we are not the masters of the room. We are not the lords of the house of life. God alone has the right to determine who lives, who dies and the life span of each person. We are stewards, not masters of human life. Even when someone puts on sterilized gloves or works with technologically advanced equipment, that person does not take on the mantle of the arbiter of human life.


The issue of embryonic stem cell research brings us face to face with a fundamental human moral principle and decision. We cannot allow our technology to outstrip our ethical reflection. The two need to move forward together. With so many areas of our society marked by the dramatic struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death, we need to develop a deep critical sense capable of discerning true values and authentic needs. We are not free to stand by and watch as others formulate a whole new culture in which human life is viewed basically as a commodity that can be created for parts that are bought and sold. We must become well informed on the issues, how significant they are and how they will determine the future for generations to come. The voice of the faithful must be heard.


Copyright © 2006 Columbia Magazine (Knights of Columbus)

Archbishop Donald Wuerl, head of the Diocese of Pittsburgh for,8 years, was appointed to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., by Pope Benedict XVI on May,6 and was installed June 22 as its sixth archbishop. A former Columbia contributing editor, he is a member of Duquesne Council 264 in Pittsburgh, and the author of a bestselling adult catechism, The Teaching of Christ (Our Sunday Visitor). His most recent book, The Catholic Way (Doubleday, 2001), includes articles on the Catechism of the Catholic Church that appeared originally in Columbia.

For Further Study

Books - Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life: Third Edition by William E. May