Monday, March 17, 2008

Being a Faithful Catholic in America: Part VI - Stem Cell Research

[This is part VI of a series: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V.]

JB has asked me to write a post on stem cell research in his series on being a faithful Catholic in America. This is an issue that must be considered when making your election decisions.

Research involving the use of stem cells is often in the news these days, but there are different types of stem cells and therefore differing levels of moral use of them involved. This is not something that is carefully explained in the media and so all kinds of stem cell research are usually just lumped together with promises of great cures attached to them. First of all, what are stem cells? Basically, stem cells are cells that have not been differentiated; they are “generic” cells that have the potential to become differentiated into, say, liver cells or skin cells or blood cells or cardiac (heart) cells, etc. Stem cells are flexible, and when given the right kinds of growth factors and nutrients, they can become any number of differentiated cells. This is why they are so promising to researchers; if they learn how to manipulate stem cells, they can produce any number of differentiated cells, which can be used to grow various kinds of tissues and organs, which can lead to cures. Such discoveries would prove to be quite valuable.

Next, we must make some distinctions. The most critical distinction that must be made is between the sources of stem cells. There are two types: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells come from embryos, of course. [A brief biology review: a fertilized egg is a single cell that divides repeatedly until it becomes a blastocyst, which is a hollow ball of cells. When the blastocyst implants into the side of the uterus and cell division continues, it is an embryo. It is medically called an “embryo” until it is about eight weeks old, when it becomes a “fetus” until it’s born.] To get stem cells from an embryo, these cells have to be extracted from the inner cell mass; this cannot be done without killing the embryo. Another source of “embryonic” stem cells is aborted fetuses; the stem cells are extracted immediately following an abortion. On the other hand, there are adult stem cells. These can be taken from umbilical cords, placentas, and amniotic fluid following the birth of a baby. They can also be taken from cadavers (up to twenty hours after death) and living adult tissues and organs, namely from bone marrow but also from fat extracted using liposuction and cells in the nasal cavity (nose).

Let us look at the moral issues involved with these two types of stem cells. As Catholics, we know abortion is wrong, as JB explained in his last post. Abortion includes actually going to an abortion clinic and having the fetus extracted, taking an oral “medicine” (poison) such as RU-486 or “Plan B” which causes a chemical abortion, using contraceptives that are known to cause abortions (including most versions of the Pill, IUDs, etc.), or destroying an embryo, a human life in its earliest stages, in a petri dish or any other location.

Some question whether destroying an embryo is actually wrong. Arguments on both sides say that the embryo is a “potential” human person. One side says it’s only potentially human, so it’s okay to kill it, while the other side insists that it is potentially a human person, so we must not kill it. This argument is flawed, because it is based on passive potentiality. In other words, the embryo is seen as just passive stuff, like clay in the hands of a potter waiting to be molded into something. This just isn’t true (as any good biologist can tell you). From the moment of conception, the new human life is active potential. There is a guiding purpose at work, even on the level of DNA, which guides the development and growth of the human. The embryo is a self-guiding entity; there is nothing else telling it what to do, so to speak. It is active, like the potter himself, molding clay into various things. The embryo guides its own cells to become this kind of cell or that. So, it has the capacity for self-development and it has a particular identity.(1) If you think about it, all humans have this active potential. I certainly don’t know anyone who is a perfect human; we’re all in a state of becoming something better (hopefully!) than we are now. (We won’t be perfect until we reach our final destiny – total communion with God in heaven.) So, the embryo is not potentially human. It is human. (It certainly isn’t a frog, a pig, or a mushroom, is it?)

Others bring into question when a human becomes a person; when does ensoulment occur? The short answer is that we don’t know, and I personally like to leave it at that. The Church has never pronounced an answer to the question because it is not something that has been revealed to us from God, and it cannot be discovered by science. Some say the moment of conception; others say other arbitrary points along the line of development. Are embryos persons? We don’t know. Are they humans? Yes, and they should be treated with the same respect and dignity as any other human life. [On a side note… are those in a persistent “vegetative” state (“brain dead”) persons? Have their souls left their bodies? We don’t know. Are they humans? Yes, and they should be treated with the same respect and dignity as any other human life.]

So you can see now why embryonic stem cell research is wrong. It involves the killing of a human life. Some might say that it’s okay to sacrifice a relatively few number of human embryos for the common good. (Sure, why not? The Nazis sacrificed a relatively few number of humans in their experiments in the concentration camps, and we got a lot of good knowledge out of that.) This misses the point about every human being made in the image and likeness of God; that’s what gives humans their inherent dignity. Not to mention that good ends (goals) don’t justify bad means (ways of getting to the goals). Therefore, embryonic stem cell research is wrong because it involves murder of humans, which is always intrinsically evil.

What about adult stem cell research? Like I showed earlier, adult stem cells come from tissues that don’t require a human life to be destroyed to use them. It is perfectly legitimate and good to use these. Adult stem cells are less flexible than embryonic stem cells because they have already reached a certain point of differentiation. However, they are still quite useful and have the added advantage of, if taken from your own body, not being rejected by your body’s immune system. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells are too flexible and energetic, making them hard to control. As a matter of fact, there have been absolutely no cases of any human being cured of any disease using embryonic stem cells. NONE! In animal trials, the cells multiplied out of control, causing cancer. However, with the use of adult stem cells, many people have been treated or cured of diseases, such as leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and spinal cord injuries.

I often wonder why celebrities and others continue pouring money into embryonic stem cell research and why various politicians and activists defend and promote it when it hasn’t produced anything useful. I’ve come up with two answers. First, maybe some of these people sincerely hope in the potential of the ever-flexible embryonic stem cell. They really think that if they just keep trying, they’ll find a way to make it work and cure every disease that afflicts mankind. This is a false hope, however, and a destructive one. Second, if scientists rejected the use of embryonic cells, they would have to eventually reject abortion. How can you say it’s not okay to kill a two-week old embryo but it is okay to kill a three-month old fetus? You can’t, logically.

In short, embryonic stem cell research is a life issue since it involves the murder of humans; Christians must denounce it. Adult stem cell research is a good endeavor that deserves Christian support.

[Note: There are many other issues that relate to the use of embryos, so perhaps I will post on them separately at another time; these include sperm donation/egg harvesting and gamete manipulation, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other infertility treatments, cloning, and surrogacy.]

(1) Benedict M. Ashley and Kevin D. O’Rourke, Ethics of Health Care, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 125.

* I must give credit to Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. for much of the information in this post, as I heard it in his lecture on bioethics in Admont, Austria in June 2004. You can find some of his articles here.


don margolis said...

To AB:
Thank you for your thoughtful and unusually accurate report on stem cells.

I started a tiny company 4+ years ago when I realized that the technology existed to save and improve the lives of dying heart patients using adult stem cells (ASC). In the three years ending Dec. 2007, we treated about 275 patients and significantly improved the lives of 200 of them.

In early 2005 I started noticing what I thought were mistakes in stem cell reporting in American newspapers. When I tried to correct them, I ran into a brick wall. Eventually I came to recognize that EVERYTHING being published in America about stem cells contained, in one form or another, two lies:
1) ASC couldn't do much of anything.
2) Embryonic stem cells (ESC) have the "promise" to do everything and the cures would come pouring out of the pipeline a few days after Bush leaves office.

Your last paragraph, starting with “I often wonder...” contains a couple of guesses as to why the support for embryonic research. The answer is a bit simpler than you surmise, though, being American (I presume) you have been trained to always respect the words of “doctors” no matter how harmful those words are to humanity.

I noticed that so-called "medical journals" promoted these lies to doctors (and do to this day) and that clinched it for me: EMBRYONIC SCIENCE FICTION HAS NEVER BEEN ABOUT CURES, IT IS ABOUT MONEY, OVER $50BILLION WHICH WILL BE BILKED FROM TAXPAYERS OVER THE NEXT DECADE OR TWO.

Patients in America are suffering and dying from 100+ so-called incurable diseases --- diseases already being successfully treated somewhere with adult stem cells. Why are we waiting for the science fiction of embryonics to produce one cure for one human being -- something that a world-full of mediocre (or blind) embryonic "scientists" have failed to accomplish in ten years in any one of hundreds of labs in over two dozen countries, while convincing a gullible world that these non-existent cures will be rushing down the pipeline as soon as Bush leaves office?

So Americans continue to suffer and die so they can defraud millions of intentionally-kept-ignorant people into paying for their research, enriching them for producing no cures; while ASC science is already ahead of where ESC will be in ten, twenty, or more years without wasting billions of dollars and millions of lives!

Finally, here are the words of one of Great Britain’s eminent embryonic researchers:
--- Professor Colin McGuckin, professor of regenerative medicine at Newcastle University, UK and one of Britain's leading embryonic researchers.

Don Margolis

AB said...


Thanks so much for providing us with more information about the real results of adult stem cell research. It sounds like you are doing good and worthy work!

As far as the reasons why embryonic stem cell research continues despite its lack of success, I definitely agree with you that it's all about the money. My two guesses reflect what I believe are underlying motives of these researchers and supporters. Personally, I am generally distrustful of doctors. (I am American, but I know what you mean about people in our country being led to respect what doctors say, no questions asked.). I appreciate the good that most of them (I hope) do, but my own studies have revealed to me that there are real issues of deception, coercion, and greed at work.

I encourage everyone to take a look at Don's blog - - for examples of successes in using adult stem cells. I haven't reviewed it all myself yet, but it looks worthy to pass on to those of you who are interested in the more pragmatic points of the issue of this post.

Just to reiterate a moral note... it's not the lack of success that makes embryonic stem cell research wrong (although you could say that it's a real social justice issue about how much money is wasted on such research when it could go toward better causes, which IS a real sin). What makes embryonic stem cell research wrong is the murder of humans that's involved.

God bless.

Anonymous said...

To ab:
Thank you for your kind words. Yes, it is true, I, as a non-Christian, have a different reason than you do for

I respect your position on the needless destruction of embryos. And I am sure that you agree with me that also important is the that the most seriously-ill of God's children are being deprived of the one hope they have.

Please check my latest manifesto, which came to me over the past week as a direct result of my being in touch with so many Catholics and my desire to find even MORE common ground:

The word for stem cells taken from the patient's own body, and then reimplanted into that body to do the most good, is AUTOLOGOUS,
THAT is why our creator made autologous stem cells in the first place, to help keep THAT ONE PERSON alive and healthy!

He has handed to us the most powerful medicine the world has ever seen, capable TODAY of defeating 20+ "incurable" diseases, and certainly another 20 in the next few years.

Yet researchers have most of the developed world believing mankind must wait years and decades
for a science fiction known as "embryonic stem cells" to produce one cure. Therefore they lie and tell a gullible
mob of their pseudo-religious fanatics that God's ultimate protection doesn't work, despite weekly proof that it is already clearly defeating EVERY DISEASE which honest researchers choose to attack.

But you can read these two short articles and understand everything.

First, the embryonic hustlers' press-release miracle of the day, promising a cure that will never come. For that is all
they have, press-release "promises" for their true-believers and a kept-ignorant public:

Secondly, how autologous adult stem cells have already proven, SCIENTIFICALLY, that the same disease is already doomed to be conquered by the truth, not by press-releases:

I send you this so that you can understand my only mission---to bring the ultimate weapon against disease to those that are now suffering endlessly without it, suffering and dying merely to enrich a group of fraud-promoting pseudo-scientists.

In order to succeed, we must understand that major truths attacking what "everybody knows" is now approaching phase 2:

1. First, it is ridiculed
2. Second, it is violently opposed
3. Finally, it is accepted as self-evident

You will know that we have succeeded only when we reach phase 3.

Don Margolis
Autologous Stem Cell Advocate

AB said...


Thanks for the additional info. Keep up the good work!

I'm linking your website on our blog.

God bless,