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Stem-Cell Science:
Why celebrity endorsements won't change the church's stand on life

By Joe Bollig

The Leaven
Archdiocese of Kansas City Kansas

October 22, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Kan. - Embryonic stem-cell research: It's hard to get your mouth around that phrase, and even harder to explain it in a single story.

Some discuss it as though it were the medical equivalent of the " Holy Grail " - a potential source of miracle cures for all sorts of conditions and illnesses.

And many celebrities tout its potential benefits - from actor Christopher Reeve, who recently died after years of being paralyzed by a spinal injury, to Michael J. Fox, who is dealing with the progressively degenerative disease called Parkinson's, to Nancy Reagan, who watched her husband die of Alzheimer's.

The issue seems straightforward enough: Cutting-edge science points the way to better lives. Who could be against it?

The Catholic Church, for one. Simply put, the issue isn't clear-cut at all. Critics say the science has been oversold - that no one really knows how fruitful the research will be. More importantly, embryonic stem- cell research presupposes ethical decisions that aren't often discussed. The debate has left many confused - and few clearly understand what the church's objections to the research might be.

To help clear up the confusion, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has assembled a question-and-answer primer, which has been reprinted in this issue. (See questions.)

And as part of its Respect Life Month coverage, The Leaven has asked Archbishop James P. Keleher and Coadjutor Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann to address the issue, and to explain the church's opposition to the research.

Both archbishops agree that embryonic stem-cell research presents a multitude of problems, but the ones most pertinent to Catholics are the ethical ones. To fully understand these, readers might need to be reminded of the basic stages of human development.

The Catholic Church teaches that life begins at conception - in other words, that human life is present from the very moment that the sperm fertilizes the egg, and an embryo starts to form from that fertilization.

Whether that embryo is implanted in a woman's uterus or not, it is considered to be human. So the fact that individuals or scientists might choose to freeze and store these embryos does not make them any less human than the embryo that is implanted and is delivered in a maternity ward nine months later.

In fact, even though scientists can now create human embryos asexually, that is, without the fertilization of an egg by a sperm, the church teaches that a human embryo - no matter how it is created - is still a precious human life. And that life cannot be tampered with, be subjected to experimentation, or eradicated, even for the purpose of advancing science or creating another life.

Stem cells, too, might need further explanation. Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can become other kinds of cells. Adult stem cells (a catchall category for all non-embryonic stem cells) can come from a number of sources in the human body. Embryonic stem cells, however, are harvested from embryos, a process which destroys the embryos.

"Embryonic [research] is the one where we have significant moral problems," said Archbishop Naumann. "The first moral problem is that one cannot do something that could be good, or might be good, or even can yield something that's good, while in the process harming another human being. Embryonic stem cell research involves the creation of a new human life for the sole purpose of scientific experimentation, which will result in the destruction of that human life."

Even if the embryo is early human life, it's still human life, and worthy of respect and protection, said John Morris, associate professor of philosophy at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

"Harvesting [embryonic cells] destroys the embryo in the process, " he said. "For people who are pro-life, who believe that life begins at conception, even though the embryo is only five days old, it's still a human being. It's tantamount to taking the vital organs out of one person to save the life of another."

The church's position is often erroneously portrayed as being against stem-cell research, he said.

"The church does not oppose all stem-cell research," said Archbishop Naumann. "In fact, the only research that has really been effective the church strongly supports, and that's with adult stem cells. And adult stem-cell research shows a lot of promise. The only known successful therapies today involve adult stem cells."

Archbishop Keleher concurred.

"Embryonic stem cell research destroys human life at its very beginnings," he said, "and the destruction up to this point has not attained any medical purposes."

But even if it had yielded results, Archbishop Keleher said, they would not have justified the willful destruction of human life.

"We [as a society] are so concerned about various human rights, " he said. But to champion those rights without protecting the right of each individual to life in the first place "seems to be a total contradiction."

Many news stories even fail to make the distinction between adult stem-cell research and embryonic research, or confuse the two, said David Prentice, former professor of life sciences at Indiana State University, now with the Family Research Council, a not-for-profit educational institution in Washington, DC. Clearly, the promise is with adult stem cells.

"Currently, after over 20 years of research with animal embryonic stem cells, there has been very little published science indicating potential benefits," said Prentice. "The cells have a tendency to form tumors, or the wrong cell, or not to function when put into the experimental animal. No human beings have been treated with embryonic stem cells."

Researchers once thought embryonic stem cells had the most potential because adult (non-embryonic) stem cells were difficult to find, isolate and grow. But today, that's old science, said Prentice. With newer techniques, non-embryonic stem cells are easier to find and grow.

"These cells can also regenerate tissue," he said. "In fact, what most people haven't heard is that [researchers] have already successfully treated thousands of human patients for conditions like Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries, and [damage done by] heart attacks and strokes. So with virtually all these diseases we keep hearing about - with all the qualifiers about the potential and promise of possible use of embryonics - adult stem cells are already being used."

But if most of the potential and promise of cures lie with adult stem cells, why is there a big effort to promote embryonic stem cells?

Prentice sees two reasons: the need for funding scientific research, and the desire to do unrestricted science.

Morris at Rockhurst sees three reasons. One is that embryonic stem cell researchers need government funding because private sector money is following the more promising path to adult stem cells.

Another is the financial incentive that could come from patenting and owning a stem-cell line that produces cures. While an adult stem cell, which is taken from an individual's body and used to treat his illness, cannot be patented, an embryonic stem cell cure could - and would be a financial windfall to the scientist or company who accomplished it.

But Morris sees a third reason that researchers are pushing for embryonic research - and it has nothing to do with embryonic stem cells per se.

"I think it's obvious that there's a connection to abortion, " he said. "If we say, 'Stop embryonic stem-cell research because it destroys embryos,' that would be the first time that we give significant status to embryos, and it would have to have ripple effects in terms of things like Roe v. Wade."

The issue of ethical use of stem cells has become more urgent locally because of efforts to establish bioscience industries in the Greater Kansas City area. A major donor has threatened to withhold future funding if Missouri outlaws human cloning, also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer.

In Kansas, a Biosciences Authority was established through the Kansas Economic Growth Act of 2004. This act restricts state funding for research to established embryonic stem-cell lines, said Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, a cosponsor of the Growth Act. Federal law currently restricts federal monies in the same fashion.

Archbishop Naumann was pleased to discover these restrictions when familiarizing himself with the pro-life landscape in Kansas.

"I think Kansas actually has some good protections right now, and I think that's excellent," said Archbishop Naumann.

But the issue is far from settled - and both Archbishops Keleher and Naumann, as well as Wilk, expect these issues to require constant vigilance in the months and years ahead.

"These are not simple issues," said Wilk. "They're complicated from a scientific standpoint. They're complicated from an ethics standpoint."

In fact, said Wilk, "they'll get more complex, and we must have an environment and atmosphere where we can discuss these issues and reach a consensus."

 

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