Cardinal raises spectre of excommunication on stem cell research

By 
  • July 9, 2007
OTTAWA - As a Canadian federal agency authorized the use of  unfrozen human embryos for stem cell research, a highly placed Vatican official warned that Catholics involved in any aspect of the destruction of human embryos could face excommunication.

In an interview published in an Italian magazine June 28, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo said, "destroying human life is equivalent to abortion."
{sidebar id=2}"Excommunication applies to all women, doctors and researchers who eliminate embryos," the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family told the Famiglia Cristiana, Italy's top-selling Catholic magazine.

Despite his rank, Trujillo's statements are not binding on how individual bishops handle this issue in their dioceses. The issue of when excommunication is called for remains a source of debate among canon law experts and Catholic ethicists.

"I don't really think excommunication is the way to go," said Dr. Moira McQueen, Canadian Catholic Biomedical Ethics Institute director.

McQueen said she does not like to see excommunication used as a political weapon or a form of retribution because it "causes more problems" and fails to stop people from "going blatantly ahead, contradicting church teachings."

Despite her reservations about public excommunication, McQueen said the use of human embryos is "reprehensible." She said she might see an exception in the case of some politicians who claim to be devout Catholics but act in ways that are totally opposed to church teachings, but only as a "last resort." But she pointed out that many other issues, such as certain kinds of warfare and social justice issues, might also need to be considered.

On June 26, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's (CIHR) governing body gave conditional approval to the use of fresh human embryos for stem cell research in addition to frozen ones. The CIHR's ethics committee approval gives a green light to a $523,000 research project approved last summer by the Canadian Stem Cell Network. The research project would use embryos donated by people participating in fertility treatments, and the embryos would be destroyed as scientists harvest stem cells.

"It's an important new project to be moving forward," said Drew Lyall, the network's executive director, according to a June 27 Canwest News report.

The Canwest article said CIHR's ethics committee wanted assurances that women would not be coerced to turn over surplus embryos or paid to do so.

A former Catholic member of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies has raised questions whether CIHR is the right body to make this ethical determination. Suzanne Scorsone said the government must form the Assisted Human Reproduction Agency called for in the 2004 Human Assisted Reproduction Act.

"Without that agency being in place, decisions are being undertaken by others without the necessary consultation with and review by a body that represents Canadian society," Scorsone said.

She stressed embryonic stem cell research is a "very, very important societal issue" from an ethical, legal and scientific standpoint and "Canadian society should have a role" in determining how "human embryos are to be treated in this country."

"The government has said that they will be forming this agency," she said. "I'm looking forward to their acting on that commitment. The Human Assisted Reproduction Act already has a number of relevant provisions but the regulations have not been determined because the agency has not been created yet.

"If it is thought by someone there is a violation of some aspect of the act, there is virtually nowhere to report it," she said. "What do you do? Call the local cop on the beat?"

Andras Nagy of Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital will lead the embryonic stem cell project that will also include researchers at the University of British Columbia and Hamilton, Ont.'s McMaster University.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, individual bishops and the Catholic Organization for Life and Family have all been on the record opposing embryonic stem cell research, whether the embryos are frozen or "fresh."

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