Offering real hope

By 
  • November 15, 2011

The Vatican is accustomed to accounts of miraculous recovery. But it didn’t take a miracle for Sharon Porter to captivate a recent gathering of cardinals, scientists, theologians and philosophers. Her story is not miraculous, just remarkable.

Porter suffers from systemic scleroderma, a dreadful auto-immune disease that causes hardening of the skin and internal organs, mobility problems and severe pain. There is no cure. But three years ago Porter’s own adult stem cells were used to rebuild her immune system and today she is virtually symptom free.

Why this matters in the Vatican is that, through the Pontifical Council for Culture, it recently signed a five-year, $1-million initiative with NeoStem, Inc., an American specialist in stem-cell research. Like the Church, NeoStem believes it is immoral — and unnecessary — to obtain stem cells by destroying embryos. It has aligned with the Church to promote adult stem cell research that is effective and ethical.

The Church has maintained that embryonic stem cell research should be abolished because it is immoral. This new allegiance with a bio-tech company will add scientific data to demonstrate it is not only immoral but is passe and needless.

Since the time of Galileo, the Church has battled an anti-science reputation. It has consistently encouraged scientific research that advances the common good. Yet a perception continues that the Vatican is antagonistic to science. In fact, the antagonism is towards some specific scientific applications (such as embryonic research), not the pursuit of knowledge itself. The affiliation with NeoStem is a step towards setting the record straight.

The Vatican recently co-sponsored an international conference on adult stem cell research that assembled leading scientists and moral thinkers. This proactive strategy is the right approach. It not only encourages ethical science and promotes moral practices, but demonstrates the Church’s willingness to assume a leadership role on these life-changing questions.

Controversial issues such as embryonic stem cell research create moral dilemmas for Catholics. They cause a clash between the desire to be faithful to Church teaching and the natural human inclination to alleviate suffering. Surely, many rationalize, God would expect mankind to use its knowledge to battle illness and disease. Thus many Catholics have been swayed by the promise of embryonic research to cure many horrible diseases. It’s much lesser known that adult stem cell research now offers an ethical — and, many contend, more reliable — path to those same cures. It’s important that the Church promotes that message.

It is not enough for the Church merely to hold that embryonic research is immoral without also encouraging alternative scientific methods that can give hope to sufferers like Sharon Porter. Adult stem cell research provides that hope. And the Church is smart to promote that.

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