Monday, October 6, 2008

On Embryonic Stem Cell Research

This is a paper I wrote over the Summer after the USCCB's statement on Embryonic Stem Cell Research came out in June at their meetings. It was something I wanted to do as a way to keep up on the moral implications of stem cell research. We must remember that there is a difference between embryonic and adult stem cells.

It should be noted that this paper was edited by Father Tad Pacholczyk, the leading Catholic Bio-Ethicist on Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Father Tad is currently the Director of Education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. His website is:

Concerning Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Analysis on the recent statement by the USCCB "On Embryonic Stem Cell Research"

June 23, 2008

The statement regarding embryonic stem cell research, put forth by the USCCB on June 13, 2008, uses an important maxim: "The Catholic Church 'appreciates and encourages the progress of the biomedical sciences which open up unprecedented therapeutic prospects' (Pope Benedict XVI, Address of January 31, 2008). At the same time, it affirms that true service to humanity begins with respect for each and every human life."[1] In this statement, the USCCB is putting forth two positions that the Church holds regarding scientific progress and inquiry; the first, that the Church does not stifle, but rather encourages every form of ethical research in biomedicine; the second, that scientific inquiry's root ethical criterion be a respect for each and every human life. Scientific inquiry that fails this criterion does not serve humanity.

The beginning of the document discusses what exactly stem cell research is. According to the document, "Stem cells are relatively unspecified cells that, when they divide, can replicate themselves and also produce a variety of more specialized cells."[2] There is much promise for stem cells, not only today, but in the future. Stem cells may one day provide cures to many of the leading causes of death in the world, including heart disease and cancer. There are adult stem cells, which can be obtained from adult tissues in various parts of the body, and there are embryonic stem cells. While the adult stem cells involve no moral qualms about their retrieval, there is much ethical concern over the obtaining and use of embryonic stem cells in the biomedical field. This document by the USCCB discusses many of the ethical problems regarding embryonic stem cell research. It also sheds light on the promises of adult stem cell research.

The document "On Embryonic Stem Cell Research" not only states the objective consequences regarding embryonic stem cell research, but also offers a compelling explanation of those arguments against the practice of embryonic stem cell research. The ethical problem surrounding embryonic stem cell research is that in order to obtain the stem cells from the embryo, there is the necessary killing of the embryo, something the statement calls to mind: "Harvesting these "embryonic stem cells" involves the deliberate killing of innocent human beings, a gravely immoral act."[3]

However, the statement calls to mind that there are some in the medical community and in the public sector who find such harvesting of stem cells a morally licit act. The statement puts forth three arguments which need to be evaluated. The first is that "any harm done in this case [harvesting embryonic stem cells] is outweighed by the potential benefits."[4] This is the typical utilitarian argument, that any action, done for a good end, is then itself necessarily a good action. Applying this to the case of harvesting embryonic stem cells for research and medical advances, a proponent of embryonic stem cell research would argue that so much good can come from the harvesting of such stem cells, that these good things necessarily outweigh any putatively morally bad factors. Thus, the good results of embryonic stem cells outweigh the evil of destroying embryonic humans. The statement says: "No commitment to a hoped-for 'greater good' can erase or diminish the wrong of directly taking innocent human lives here and now."[5] The greater good mentality tries to erase moral qualms regarding actions we commit now, looking for the future to justify those acts. Much of the evil we experienced in the 20th century was a direct result of this type of thinking; one such example was inhumane and cruel experiments conducted on prisoners of Nazi concentration camps for the sake of "advancing science." The USCCB statement calls to mind that in this ethical system, the patient we help today can be sacrificed tomorrow if that patient "is viewed as disadvantaging other human beings considered more deserving or productive."[6] In this flawed ethical system, a patient with Alzheimer's disease can easily be disposed of if he inhibits the productive living of someone else. Both actions are the killing of a human being (in different stages of life), and both are viewed as good for the future of a particular group of people. So the person we may help today through the destruction of a an embryo can be disposed of tomorrow for the same reason we destroyed that embryonic human.

The second common argument that the statement cites is that "what is destroyed is not a human life, or at least not a human being with fundamental human rights."[7] The USCCB initially discusses the first position, that a human life is not destroyed. Stating biological fact, the "new living organism has the full complement of human genes and is actively expressing those genes to live and develop."[8] The embryo is a member of the species Homo sapiens. The statement reminds us that each of us was once an embryo, and embryonic development is but a natural progression of human development, like any other stage in life. We can ask what a human life looks like before she is born, and we can point to a human embryo. Some still claim that while the embryo may be a human life, "life at this stage is too weak or underdeveloped, too lacking in physical or mental abilities, to have full human worth or human rights."[9] The Bishop’s statement argues that we have human rights based simply on the fact that we are members of the human family. If we rely on things that can change, appear, disappear, or vary among different humans in order to determine fundamental rights, then what we really have is a lack of inherent human rights not only for embryos, but for every person. What we end up with is a system where whoever has power has privileges, while the rest are disposable. The USCCB statement reminds us that in 1776, the signers of the Declaration of Independence took for granted basic human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the name of that right to life articulated even 232 years ago, the document encourages us to acknowledge how embryonic stem cell research directly violates that right.

The third argument that the statement puts forth is that "dissecting human embryos for their cells should not be seen as involving a loss of human life."[10] This position begins by arguing that embryos that are spare or unwanted should be donated to science. Because these embryos are going to die anyway, it is irrelevant how we treat them. But the document responds that everybody is going to eventually die. Clearly, though, because we are going to die eventually does not suggest that people have a right to kill us for the sake of medical advancement. The statement reminds us that "our society does not permit lethal experiments on terminally ill patients or condemned prisoners on the pretext that they will soon die anyway."[11] Although this argument does not state it, the counterargument presupposes inherent human rights and dignity, as defended in the second argument.

Once the practice of embryonic stem cell research becomes a regular practice in biomedical labs, we must look at the necessary consequence, the creation of human embryos via “nuclear transfer” for the sake of such research. This practice is commonly called cloning, something our society has seen in the past 12 years, beginning with the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996. The USCCB warns sternly against the practice of human cloning for embryonic stem cell research: "Human cloning is intrinsically evil because it reduces human procreation to a mere manufacturing process, producing new human beings in the laboratory to predetermined specifications as though they were commodities."[12] In this act of generating life, cloning shows grave disrespect for human life. It reduces human procreation to a mere utility for the sake of ulterior research purposes.

The USCCB statement references a better way to practice stem cell research. They refer to stem cells from adults, which are "more versatile that once thought."[13] These stem cells also do not raising the moral qualms which embryonic stem cells raise. Stem cells can be found in adult tissue, including adult tissues, and umbilical cord blood. These stem cells have been successful in treatments for heart disease, cancer, and even paralysis. Scientists have even learned to develop "new non-destructive methods for producing cells with the properties of embryonic stem cells- for example, by 'reprogramming' adult cells."[14] This refers to morph regular cells into pluripotent stem cells. The USCCB statement says that "Catholic foundations and medical centers have been, and will continue to be, among the leading supporters of ethically responsible advances in the medical use of adult stem cells."[15].

In conclusion, the USCCB posits a question, "how are we to use science in the future?" Will we ignore the grave ethical responsibilities that are ours and use the most vulnerable of our society as mere guinea pigs for scientific progress, or will we stand up and take responsibility for the lives that are in our care, to ensure that human life does not become a mere commodity for the sake of scientific advancement? In the end, we must promote "ethically responsible ways that respect the dignity of each human being."[16]

[1] On Embryonic Stem Cell Research. USCCB. 2008. Page One.
[2] Ibid. Page One.
[3]On Embryonic Stem Cell Research. USCCB. 2008. Page One
[4] Ibid. Page Two.
[5] Ibid. Page Two.
[6]On Embryonic Stem Cell Research. USCCB. 2008. Page Two.
[7] Ibid. page Two.
[8] Ibid. Page Three.
[9] Ibid. Page Three.
[10] On Embryonic Stem Cell Research. USCCB. 2008. Page Two.
[11] Ibid. Page Four.
[12]On Embryonic Stem Cell Research. USCCB. 2008. page Five.
[13] Ibid. Page Six.
[14] Ibid. Page Six.
[15] Ibid. Page Six.
[16]On Embryonic Stem Cell Research. USCCB. 2008. Page Seven.

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