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By Lynn and Bob Gillen

Links for Learners | January 2002

Stem-cell Research: How Catholic Ethics Guide Us


Finding Curriculum Connections
Finding Links
Understanding Basic Terms
Scientific Developments Raise Ethical Concerns
Ethical Decision-making Skills
What is Stem-cell Research All About?
Ethical Issues in Using Early Embryos
High-tech Therapies as a Business
Research Resources

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Links for Learning

Finding Curriculum Connections for High School Teachers and Students

This month’s Links for Learners will support high school curriculum in:
Christian lifestyles—the value of human life; bioethics; ethical decisionmaking
Business—business markets and investing

Finding Links for Discussion Group Leaders and Participants

Look for connections for use in programs outside the classroom, such as:

Parish sacramental preparation programs and CCD classes; young adult discussion programs; seasonal discussion groups; RCIA programs.
Parents will also find this material useful in initiating discussion around the dinner table, in home study, at family activities.

Understanding Basic Terms in This Month’s Article

Look for the key words and terms below as you read the article. Definitions or explanations can be researched from the article itself or from the resource materials cited throughout the Links for Learners. You can also find a list of terms on the glossary page of




In vitro fertilization

Moral theology


Stem cell


Molecular genetics


High-tech intervention

Scientific Developments Raise Ethical Questions

No one need remind us that we live in an age of rapid technological and scientific development. We enjoy MP3 players, VCRs, CD burners, interactive Internet communication, satellite television and radio. Along with this technology come ethical questions about possible infringement of copyrighted material and intellectual property.

When we shop at the mall or visit a doctor, vast computer databases store consumer and personal information—social security numbers, credit ratings, medical histories, buying habits. Ethical issues arise here too over how companies use these databases and still preserve personal privacy.

Recent advances in medical technology hold the promise for curing previously irreversible diseases. Physicians now perform medical procedures without invasive surgery and transplant vital organs to prolong life. Scientists have cloned a sheep and, as the Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) company now boasts, cloned a human cell. Biotech companies have developed embryonic stem cells for research in the cure of disease. The ethical implications of these advances are enormous.

Ethical Decisionmaking Skills

As teenagers, how do we make ethical decisions on these complex, vital issues? Where do we learn to develop decisionmaking skills in ethics and morality? Can we ever have enough information to make an intelligent choice? Take a look at the National Character Education Center Web site, with its wealth of resources and links, and its free newsletter on character development.

You may find helpful the thorough guidelines and resources offered by the Josephson Institute of Ethics on their Character Counts! web site. The Institute encourages us to apply five steps:

  • Clarify—determine what needs to be decided and identify a range of options.
  • Evaluate—look at facts and assumptions carefully. Identify solid facts. Look at the credibility of the information sources.
  • Decide—make a judgment about what is or is not true, and what consequences are likely to occur.
  • Implement—develop a plan to implement your decision so as to maximize benefits and minimize risks.
  • Monitor and Modify—be prepared to take a different course of action, based on new information.

Step two, evaluate, invites us to do our homework on an issue, and check out the reliability of our sources. We can apply this process to the topic of stem-cell research.

Step Two: Evaluate

What is Stem-cell Research All About?

President George W. Bush recently announced his decision to allow, for the first time ever, federal funding for research on existing human embryonic stem-cell lines. Bush set two major conditions on the funded research: The derivation process should have already been initiated prior to his August 9, 2001, announcement; and the embryo from which the stem-cell line was derived should no longer have the possibility of development as a human being. Four additional criteria must be met for approval of federal funds, according to the White House.

The president's decision triggered a debate on using American tax dollars for this kind of research. According to Jeffrey Kahn, Director for the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, at the heart of the debate is how we should use human embryos. Embryos are killed in the process of stem-cell research. Some view embryos as human life, and therefore deserving of the same respect we offer a child or adult. Others see an early embryo as a collection of cells much like any other bodily tissue, and research on such tissue as uncontroversial. The National Catholic Bioethics Center has also addressed the issue of stem-cell research.

The U. S. Government's National Institutes of Health publishes a comprehensive stem-cell primer. The development of human pluripotent stem cells can, according to the NIH, provide a "renewable source of replacement cells and tissues" useful in treating diseases, disorders and disabilities that would include Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease and diabetes. Such "cell therapies" would reverse diseases and disorders resulting from disruption of cellular function or destruction of bodily tissue.

In the biopharmaceutical industry, the Geron Corporation defines embryonic stem cells as self-renewing primitive cells that can develop into functional, differentiated cells. Pluripotent cells are capable of giving rise to many, but not all, cells necessary for fetal development. As such, they can be a source for replacement tissues in the human body, repairing tissues damaged by accident or disease.

Ethical Issues in Using Early Embryos

There are differing opinions about how to obtain the research stem cells. Stem cells can come from adult cells, as in blood stem cells in bone marrow. Or they can come from embryonic cells, such as from a naturally aborted fetus, an embryo destroyed in abortion, from cells prepared for an in vitro fertilization or cells grown with the intent of destruction for research purposes.

In the opinion of many scientists, destruction of early embryos is the most effective way to gather stem cells. Some, including the Catholic Church, find this morally unacceptable. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, stated, "It is immoral to produce human embryos destined to be exploited as disposable 'biological material.'" This view disallows generating or creating embryos as disposable, destructible cells for research.

In determining the moral status of an early embryo, the Church believes that the most prudent response is to recognize personal individuality from the first moment of conception. Others argue that conception/fertilization is not a moment but a process. Since the development of an embryo into a fetus is a process, it can be argued that early development does not indicate true individuality. And if this individuality is lacking, there is no person, no soul. A living organism, yes, but not yet a person. This view is not endorsed by the Catholic Church.

High-tech Therapies as a Business

This month's article also challenges us to consider public-policy issues. Should we morally continue expensive research for what is really high-tech intervention? Should we focus on prevention rather than cure as a dominant health-care strategy? Where do we channel our health-care resources? Will the poor benefit from any of the high-tech research?

Powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C., represent scientists, medical research companies and Wall Street investors. Celebrity spokespersons such as Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, and high-profile individuals like Representative Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) have argued before Congress on the need for stem-cell research. Unquestionably there are many thousands of individuals who could benefit from stem-cell research.

Disease and disorder certainly create a marketplace for high-tech intervention. We need to factor this business market into our decisionmaking. Stem-cell research can be as much about business profit as it is about scientific exploration and health concerns. Biotech companies spend years and many millions of dollars on product research. (See Forbes magazine's November 26, 2001, article "Cloning's High Cost.") These companies are funded by investors who expect a return on their investment (ROI).

To illustrate this reality, look at the Web sites for biotech firms such as Amgen, Genzyme, Geron and BresaGen —all companies deeply committed to scientific research and development. (Amgen is best known for Epogen, a version of a human protein that stimulates production of red blood cells. Epogen is used to treat anemia in kidney patients on dialysis treatment, eliminating the need for blood transfusions.) Prominent on each Web site are "Investor Information" and "Press/Media Relations" icons, with financial information and up-to-the-minute stock quotes. These companies face a great deal of pressure to develop a viable product and bring it to market as soon as possible.

This is just an example of one of the steps—evaluate—that we introduced in this study guide. Now that you see how the process goes, explore the other steps in light of this issue.


Research Resources

Try accessing some of these Internet sources for further reference. Be aware, however, that some of these sites may charge for downloading articles contained within the site’s archives.

The New York Times
The Los Angeles Times
Time magazine
The Associated Press
The Chicago Tribune
People magazine
The History Channel
The Miami Herald
The Close Up Foundation Washington, D.C.-based organization
ABC News
Channel One’s online resource
The Vatican
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
The New American Bible
Documents of Vatican II

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