Is Stem-Cell Research Moral?

by Patrick McCloskey, O.F.M.

What is the Catholic Church's position on stem-cell research? How did the Church arrive at that position?

The current debate over federal funding for stem-cell research involves in vitro fertilization (in a petri dish) to create embryos from which stem cells can be extracted. This debate includes research on "leftover" embryos, those created in a petri dish but not used for implantation in a woman's uterus.

The Catholic Church's objection is to creating life this way—whether the embryo is successfully implanted or used only for research. In either case, a human life is created but deliberately prevented from reaching its full potential.

In his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II wrote: "Human embryos obtained in vitro are human beings and are subjects with rights; their dignity and right to life must be respected from the first moment of their existence. It is immoral to produce human embryos destined to be exploited as disposable 'biological material'" (1,5).

In vitro fertilization is not the only way to obtain stem cells. They can be extracted from adults (not as usable for research) or from an umbilical cord after a child is born. The Catholic Church has no objection to research using stem cells in those ways. The use of that research is a separate, but related, moral issue.

A moral theologian whom I consulted said that opposition to federal funding on stem cells from embryos created expressly for this purpose also reflects fear that such approval may lead to direct federal funding for abortion (currently not allowed) because this authorization could be used as an argument that embryos are not human persons. Aborted fetuses are also a source of stem cells. That, of course, emphasizes that these are human lives.

On June 29, 2001, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote on behalf of the nation's Catholic bishops to President George W. Bush, urging him not to authorize federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. "Government must not treat any living human being as research material, as a mere means for benefit to others," wrote Bishop Fiorenza. Pope John Paul II made the same request during a private meeting with President Bush on July 23, 2001.

On August 23, 2000, the National Institutes of Health issued guidelines on stem-cell research. That same day, Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (headquartered in Washington, D.C.), issued a strong critique of those guidelines. Both documents can be found in the September 7, 2000, issue of Origins, a newsletter published by Catholic News Service. Your parish or local library may have a subscription.

The theologian whom I consulted wrote, "While much good may come from the proposed research, we must not lose sight of the fact that the means used to reach that good end must also be moral. The end does not justify the means. In this case, curing even thousands of persons does not justify the destruction of others, even though they are still in the embryonic state of development."

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