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Church's duty is to respect life, Fabbro says

  • July 9, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - The battle over using human embryos in stem-cell research is not just about creating cures for dreaded diseases. It is more importantly about treating human life as raw material that is expendable in the pursuit of scientific research, says Bishop Ron Fabbro of London, Ont.
The bishop laid out the Catholic Church's thinking on stem-cell research in a comprehensive presentation for the fourth annual Connie Heng Lecture sponsored by the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute. The lecture, attended by almost 200 people, was held at the University of St. Michael's College on Nov. 5.

"It is difficult to maintain our ethical position, when most of society seems to be heading in a different direction," Fabbro said. "Nonetheless, we have a clear duty to do so. The basis for respect for the embryo, therefore, must be constantly restated by us. No matter what size, no matter what stage of development, a human embryo is to be treated as a person from conception."

{sidebar id=2}Stem-cell research is a lightning rod for controversy, combining promises of cures to debilitating diseases with the threat to human life in the form of embryos. Stem cells can be found in all human tissue and have attracted the attention of biologists because they can renew themselves in different ways to create new tissues such as those found in the liver and heart. Research on adult stem cells has received the approval of church authorities because it doesn't involve a threat to human life. However, the church has condemned research on stem cells taken from human embryos because the embryo must be killed in the process.

While scientists have had some success with adult stem cells, a large part of the scientific community is pressing to open up research on embryonic stem cells because early indications are that they have greater potential for curing diseases.

Those promises are behind the drive to legalize the use of embryonic stem cells and even legalize so-called therapeutic cloning, in which embryos are cloned solely for the purpose of creating stem cells for scientific or medical uses. In the United States, prominent Hollywood celebrities such as the late Christopher Reeves, left quadriplegic as the result of an accident, and former First Lady Nancy Reagan, whose husband Ronald Reagan died with Alzheimer's disease, have been in the front row in the campaign for complete freedom for embryonic stem-cell research.

"Arguments such as those raised recently by . . . Nancy Reagan, appealing for embryonic stem cell research using cells from any embryonic source, including clones, in the search for a cure for Alzheimer's, can obviously sway us in our attempts to relieve suffering," Fabbro observed. "And who is not affected by the plight of the late Christopher Reeves, also pleading for a cure and asking scientists to use any means, including cloned embryos, to find cures for serious illnesses or conditions. Celebrity power is evident in many areas of life, and individual situations move us to compassion."

Fabbro said this campaign is just part of a societal atmosphere in favour of treating embryos as simply material that can be sacrificed for the greater good of humanity. He described how many advocates of embryonic stem-cell research have been successful at framing the public debate to their advantage by using language that dehumanizes the embryo. Terms such as 'pre-embryo', 'a clump of cells' and 'potential human being,' push people to think of embryos as non-human.

"Concerning 'potential', it is important to emphasize that we all undoubtedly have potential for development in all sorts of areas. The embryo has too. However, just as we remain who we are through the actualizing of potential, so does the embryo. It does not have the potential to become human. It is human by its very existence."

Fabbro also said Catholic teaching on cloning is clear. Cloning is an immoral procedure whether it is done to reproduce a human being (reproductive cloning) or to reproduce cells for research.

The bishop pointed out there is a global drive to create an international ban on reproductive cloning, but no similar campaign to ban therapeutic cloning. "The United States is one of the few major powers pushing for a ban on both," he said.

Earlier this year the Canadian Parliament passed legislation that banned reproductive cloning but allowed research on human embryos left over from fertilization treatments. Fabbro also said Canadian researchers are currently working with existing stem cell lines, which provokes serious questions for Catholic hospitals and medical research bodies.

As part of a bishop's role is to ensure Catholic health-care institutions in his diocese conform to church teaching in their practices, Fabbro offered answers to some of the questions facing the doctors and researchers in these centres.

Fabbro said his answers were based on traditional church teachings on "co-operation with evil," which guide Catholics in making decisions on a day-to-day basis when working in areas where their actions may have evil consequences, unintended or otherwise. He made a distinction between "formal co-operation" in which there is both participation in evil action and approval of the action, which is always immoral, and material co-operation that implies some co-operation without approval in the hopes of achieving a good result.

The questions:

1. "Is there a difference between making use of an embryo frozen as surplus to requirements for in vitro fertilization and making use of an embryo created for the precise purpose of research?"

Fabbro argued that there is no moral distinction between using a 'spare' embryo and using one created by cloning.

2. "What co-operation in evil is involved in the matter of using embryonic stem cells from existing stem cell lines?"

The bishop argued that since Catholic researchers would be using stem cells derived from embryos killed for that purpose, they would be "complicit in the deaths of the early embryos." He also said the Catholic researchers would be co-operating in "present and future deaths of embryos" because they would be working in a context in which embryos are seen simply as biological matter and used accordingly. And some cures may themselves require the insertion of embryonic stem cells into patients, thus requiring the deaths of more and more embryos.

"The simple fact is that they cannot restrict themselves to stem-cell lines that are derived from killings of embryos which took place in the distant past," the bishop said. "This being so, surely the hospitals cannot stand around with outstretched hands awaiting a new batch of cells, all the while quietly protesting their disapproval of the killings of the embryos. This is blatantly deceptive behaviour."

3. "Is a Catholic health-care institution permitted morally to make use of a 'cure' which was discovered by immoral means, i.e., through research involving embryonic stem cells?"

Fabbro described two possible answers.

"If the cure demands the insertion in the patient of embryonic stem cells obtained precisely by killing the embryo for this purpose (which seems likely), then that cure should not be allowed in a Catholic institution."

The second possibility was that a cure could be based on embryonic research but not require any further use of embryonic stem cells. Fabbro said this was at present a hypothetical question, however he believed Catholic institutions should not be compelled to avoid the use of such cures since they are working in an environment where patients and their families would not understand why a cure that could save lives would not be used.

"I am aware that this way of thinking could help embed the immorality of killing embryos into the social and cultural fabric of society. On the other hand, by continually emphasizing the moral status of the embryo and by forbidding obvious formal co-operation in their deaths or complicity in their deaths, a firm statement will be made about the dignity of the embryo."

Fabbro finished by encouraging further work on adult stem cell lines, which then avoids the threat to embryos.

<i>(The full text of the speech will be published on the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute web site www.utoronto.ca/stmikes/bioethics .)</i>

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