U.S. bishops call stem cell research 'gravely immoral'

By  Nancy Frazier O’Brien, Catholic News Service
  • June 18, 2008

{mosimage}ORLANDO, Fla. - Declaring that stem-cell research does not present a conflict between science and religion, the U.S. bishops overwhelmingly approved a statement June 13 calling the use of human embryos in such research “gravely immoral” and unnecessary.

In the last vote of the public session of their June 12-14 spring general assembly in Orlando, the bishops voted 191-1 in favour of the document titled “On Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: A Statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“It now seems undeniable that once we cross the fundamental moral line that prevents us from treating any fellow human being as a mere object of research, there is no stopping point,” the document said. “The only moral stance that affirms the human dignity of all of us is to reject the first step down this path.”

Consideration of the stem-cell document came after an intense and complicated debate at the meeting over a 700-page liturgical translation. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City thanked those involved in the liturgical debate for “making stem-cell research seem simple,” which drew laughs from the other bishops.

The seven-page policy statement was approved with little debate and few amendments. Naumann said it would be issued in an “attractive educational brochure” intended for the “broadest possible distribution.”

Also coming out this summer, he said, are three educational resources on the medical advances being made with adult stem cells: a 16-minute DVD called Stem-Cell Research: Finding Cures We Can All Live With; an updated parish bulletin insert on the topic; and a brochure on “Stem Cells and Hope for Patients,” which will be part of the bishops’ annual Respect Life observance.

Although the U.S. bishops have been active in the national debate on stem cells, individually and collectively, this marks the first time they have addressed the issue in a document “devoted exclusively” to that topic, Naumann said.

“Even our opponents admit that ours is one of the most effective voices against destroying human embryos for stem-cell research,” he added.

The document is designed to set the stage for a later, more pastoral document explaining why the Catholic Church opposes some reproductive technologies.

“While human life is threatened in many ways in our society, the destruction of human embryos for stem-cell research confronts us with an issue of respect for life in a stark new way,” it says.

“The issue of stem-cell research does not force us to choose between science and ethics, much less between science and religion,” the document says. “It presents a choice as to how our society will pursue scientific and medical progress.”

The policy statement seeks to refute three arguments made in favour of permitting stem-cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos. It says proponents of embryonic stem-cell research argue:

  • “Any harm done in this case is outweighed by potential benefits.

  • “What is destroyed is not a human life, or at least not a human being with fundamental human rights.

  • “Dissecting human embryos for their cells should not be seen as involving a loss of embryonic life.”

Responding to the first argument, the document says that “the false assumption that a good end can justify direct killing has been the source of much evil in our world.”

“No commitment to a hoped-for ‘greater good’ can erase or diminish the wrong of directly taking innocent human lives here and now,” the statement adds. “In fact, policies undermining our respect for human life can only endanger the vulnerable patients that stem-cell research offers to help. The same ethic that justifies taking some lives to help the patient with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease today can be used to sacrifice that very patient tomorrow.”

On the claims that a week-old embryo is “too small, immature or undeveloped to be considered a ‘human life’ ” or “too lacking in mental or physical abilities to have full human worth or human rights,” the document notes that the embryo “has the full complement of human genes” and is worthy of the same dignity given to all members of the human family.

“If fundamental rights such as the right to life are based on abilities or qualities that can appear or disappear, grow or diminish, and be greater or lesser in different human beings, then there are no inherent human rights, no true human equality, only privileges for the strong,” the statement says.

The document also dismisses the argument that there is no harm in killing so-called “spare” embryos created for in vitro fertilization attempts because they would die anyway.

“Ultimately each of us will die, but that gives no one a right to kill us,” the statement says. “Our society does not permit lethal experiments on terminally ill patients or condemned prisoners on the pretext that they will soon die anyway. Likewise, the fact that an embryonic human being is at risk of being abandoned by his or her parents gives no individual or government a right to directly kill that human being first.”

The document also addresses moves to permit human cloning and the “grotesque practice” — banned by the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act of 2006 — to develop cloned embryos in a woman’s womb in order to harvest tissues and organs from them.

It closes with a reminder that the use of adult stem cells and umbilical-cord blood have been shown to offer “a better way” to produce cells that can benefit patients suffering from heart disease, corneal damage, sickle cell anemia, multiple sclerosis and many other diseases.

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