I Once Was Blind: Adult Stem Cell Therapy Heals Blind Eyes AND Respects Human Life


Deacon Keith Fournier

  Catholic Online

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - I just read a report by Alicia Chang, AP Science writer, on June 23, 2010, in an article entitled  "Stem cells reverse blindness caused by burns." Chang wrote "Dozens of people who were blinded or otherwise suffered severe eye damage when they were splashed with caustic chemicals had their sight restored with transplants of their own stem cells - a stunning success for the burgeoning cell-therapy field, Italian researchers reported Wednesday. The treatment worked completely in 82 of 107 eyes and partially in 14 others, with benefits lasting up to a decade so far. One man whose eyes were severely damaged more than 60 years ago now has near-normal vision."

Progress in this adult stem cell research is rapid. However, one does not read  much about it. On June 9, 2010, the Pro-Life News Source, LifeSite News, reported another breakthrough, adult stem cells are helping people suffering from multiple sclerosis, brain injuries and heart ailments. The article is entitled "New Adult Stem-Cell Treatments for Head and Heart Advance". These reports reflect the rapidly expanding breakthroughs in adult stem cell research.  

Adult Stem Cell research is fully supported by the Catholic Church. In fact, the Church is helping to fund it. Vatican Information Services reported in June  that " international biopharmaceutical company NeoStem Inc. and the Pontifical Council for Culture have announced a joint initiative between their charitable organizations to expand research and raise awareness of adult stem cell therapies. NeoStem's Stem for Life Foundation, formed to create awareness about the promise of adult stem cells to treat disease, and the pontifical council's STOQ Foundation (Science Theology and the Ontological Quest), will work to advance research on adult stem cells, to explore their clinical applicability in the field of regenerative medicine, and the cultural relevance of such research especially with its impact on theological and ethical issues".

The Pontifical Council for Culture through its charitable foundation STOQ International made an economic commitment of one million dollars to start  collaboration with NeoStem, an international biopharmaceutical company with operations in the US and China.

The Catholic Church unequivocally opposes human embryonic stem cell research. She must! She will not change her position. Why? The answer is simple, it is always deadly. The human embryo is a living member of the human species who, like every one of us, is always in development. Every human being possesses an equal moral dignity and has a fundamental Right to Life. This is true no matter what age or stage of our development, degree of dependence upon others (we are all dependent upon others) or the opinion of others as to our "worth". We are not products we are persons. The Vatican recently expressed it  this way  "the use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person." (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions).

Catholic researchers are morally prohibited from participating in deadly research on human embryonic persons. This is the case whether that research is "direct" (i.e., obtaining what are called embryonic stem cell lines, which involves killing the human embryonic person in order to "extract" them) or "indirect" (i.e. using what is euphemistically referred to as "biological material" - body parts) which is to use such stem cells passed on from others who directly participated in the killing of the human embryonic persons in the first instance. 

However, it is simply a lie to say that the Catholic Church "opposes stem cell research" and it is said repeatedly! The instruction reaffirms that the Church affirms "science [as] an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being," and "hopes that the results of [biomedical] research may also be made available in areas of the world that are poor and afflicted by disease, so that most in need will receive humanitarian assistance," and calls on scientists and research institutions to "dedicate themselves to the progress of biomedicine and [to] bear witness to their faith in the field....research initiatives involving the use of adult stem cells, since they do not present ethical problems, should be encouraged and supported."

In 1987, theCatholic Church answered the central  question,  "What Respect is due to the human embryo, taking into account his nature and identity?" The answer given: "The human being must be respected - as a person - from the very first instant of his (her) existence." In the "Dignity of the Person" we were reminded of what should be obvious to anyone who is a true humanist, science must be placed at the service of the human person. Any use of stem cell technology must respect that the human body is never an "it" - but an "I" - some-one who must not be treated as an object or commodity. "The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well defined program with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby."

Unfortunately, the prevailing view of human rights entrenched in American judicial precedent and legislation denies the equal protection of the law to the human embryonic person as it does to the child in the womb. American law refuses to recognize that human embryos, or children in the womb, have a right to life and a right to a future. There are a number of differing philosophical arguments offered to promote the notion that fundamental rights are conferred by positive civil law rather than by the Natural Law - and then recognized by just civil laws. Most of these arguments reserve the use of the concept of "person" to those humans who are deemed to somehow be "independent" and/or "autonomous".

They are often promoted by people who call themselves "medical ethicists". These folks have substantial academic degrees and professional pedigree and sit on Advisory Councils. Some of these new "ethicists" try to make a distinction between "potential" and "actual" human persons and relegate the child in the womb to the category of being only a "potential" human person. Others view interdependency as a negative and insist on "independence" and "autonomy" as a criterion for any human rights to ever attach to human persons. Some equate the human embryonic persons   dependency on the mother as a form of "non-personhood". Still others propose a progressive notion of consciousness as indicative of a growing presence of "personhood".
A few concede that human embryos are human beings but deny they are persons. We find all of these ideas in the field sadly referred to these days as "Bio-Ethics" even though such positions are anything but ethical. We find them in textbooks being used to teach the subject to future medical practitioners. (See, e.g., Singer and Kuhse, "Bioethics") One of these "ethicists", Michael Tooley denies the child in the womb should have any rights at all. His rationale evolved over time. In each version, as scientific research cast serious doubt on his claims, he conveniently shifted his ground to reach the same conclusion.

Yet, science itself betrays the falsity of these claims. Human embryology and developmental biology affirm that a human embryo is not distinct in kind from a human being, but a human being at an early stage of development. Even prior to implantation, a human embryo is a unique living human being with the genetic constitution and epigenetic primordial that continues to develop throughout his or her life. However, the right not to be killed in the womb, the right to be born and the right to participate in human relationships are rejected for these little persons. Human embryonic lives are reduced to what one astute Catholic philosopher and lawyer, Robert George, called a "pre-personal way of being human".  

The idea that people can be less than persons is being applied to other stages of human development outside of the womb. The disabled (physically and mentally), the aged and the infirmed are increasingly denied equal protection of the law. There is an emphasis on individual rights over relation and autonomy over solidarity. The late Servant of God John Paul wrote in "The Gospel of Life" concerning what he called this "remarkable contradiction". ".the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them."(Par. 19)

This counterfeit notion views comatose human beings as no longer "persons". Their caregivers are encouraged to stop giving them food and water. Seriously ill children are viewed as interlopers who should not use medical and social resources. Whether the criteria for being recognized as a human person is a satisfactory level of brain function, an agreed upon notion of self awareness, non-dependency, individual autonomy, or some similar "acceptable" level of physical or mental capacity, this reduces the human being to a human doing, valuable not simply because they are members of our human family and gifts to be received but based upon their functionality and subject to deadly treatment once they are no longer of economic value.   

There can be no debate that we were all once human embryos. We all lived in the first home of the whole human race, our mother's womb. For the Christian, we further profess that the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was a human being, who, in the embryonic stage, lived in his mother's womb. At every age and stage of our "human-being- ness", be it in the womb, as an infant, as a child, an adolescent, an adult, in our times of illness, in our old age, we have always been dependent on others and vulnerable. This is what it means to be a human being. The emphasis of the proponents of the culture of death on independence and autonomy informs a worldview that Pope John Paul II taught threatens the ".entire structure of human rights." (Gospel of Life, Par. 19)

We must speak for human embryonic Life as we speak for all human life. We must oppose human embryonic stem cell research because it is a new form of genetic slavery wherein an entire class of human persons is being labeled as property to be used by those who are more powerful. It is immoral and violates the Natural Law. In so doing, we suffer the indignities of being verbally pilloried, accused of being anti-science or impeding progress. Nonsense. We are insisting that science serve justice! Catholics are at the front line of this life or death struggle. Why? Because our Church has been absolutely clear in her unbroken teaching on the dignity of every human person, including what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith properly called "embryonic persons".

However, we should support adult stem cell research and spread this good news, those who once were blind can now see!