Stem Cell Research: Why the Controversy?

Stem-cell research may hold the key for curing for Parkinson’s, diabetes and other debilitating diseases. The cells can be obtained from sources such as the extra cord blood, the placenta, and adult bone marrow. There is no moral problem with extracting them from those sources. However, some are proposing the use of human embryos to obtain totipotent stem cells.*

The Seattle Times had a series of letters last Sunday, July 15, about this controversy. One writer accused the Catholic bishops of opposing such research because of “fear of loss of their status and control over people.” Another asserted, “The bottom line is that stem cells are retrieved from day- to week-old embryos that would otherwise be discarded.”

But is that really the “bottom line”? I would ask you to read this letter from Dr. Steven Felix and to form your own judgment on this crucial issue:

The Times supports stem-cell research ("Stem-cell research must proceed," editorial, July 8). The reason is utilitarian, by the editor's own admission. The argument goes like this: Embryos can be used to harvest cells that can then be used to cure diseases like Parkinson's; these embryos will be discarded anyway, therefore they should be used for research. Such research is "science that helps us."

But there is a fundamental question that is left unasked. That question is whether the embryo is human life. If it is just a "clump of cells," as The Times and proponents of stem-cell research contend, then there is no problem with using embryos in this fashion. But if it is human life, then this research should be prohibited in favor of research using adult stem cells.

This question is essential because it underlies the very foundation of our society. Regardless of the motive, even a noble one such as relieving human suffering, we cannot use a fellow human as a means to accomplish an end in our life. The question then becomes, is the embryo human life?

At a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, Dr. Hymie Gordon, Chairman of the Department of Genetics at the Mayo Clinic, stated: "By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception."

Dr. Alfred Bongiovanni of the University of Pennsylvania at the same hearing testified: "I am no more prepared to say that these early stages represent an incomplete human being than I would be to say that the child prior to the dramatic effects of puberty is not a human being."

A genetically unique human life exists from the moment of conception. To state that the embryo is just a "clump of cells" is biologically equivalent to saying that the sun revolves around a flat Earth. And experimenting on this life reduces a human to a means for another person's end. It makes us all ultimately vulnerable to the desires of the powerful, who might one day decide for their own "noble" ends, that we too are not human. - Steven D. Felix, M.D., Kirkland

Two centuries ago the great philospher Immanuel Kant enunciated what he called the categorical imperative: "Act so as to use humanity, whether in your own person or in others, always as an end, and never merely as a means."** In the United States we are facing a crucial test of that fundamental principle. After years of in vitro fertilization, we have amassed many frozen embryos. As a source of totipotent stem cells, researchers want to use them to seek cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and other terrible afflictions. Since their owners will eventually disposed of the embryos, why not utilize them for this important research?

Scientists in another nation followed a similar logic. In Germany during World War II, certain people were classified as subhuman. As they were destined for disposal, doctors decided to use them for medical experiments. Reading about those experiments today, anyone - except a neo-Nazi - would recoil in horror.

Some argue that because a human embryo does not have arms and legs, we cannot consider it the same as a baby or even a fetus. However, the question is not their outward appearance but whether they are a human life.*** If not, there is no moral problem employing them to grow a heart or liver. But if they are tiny humans, those who use them for research would be in the same position morally as Dr. Mengele. The fundamental principle has been stated above: treat each human as an end, never as a mere means.

I know some people are genuinely uncertain if the embryo is a human person. I can only ask you to consider what a hunter does if he sees a bush move. Will he not hold his fire until he is sure it is not another human being? Even if the chance of it being child were one in a thousand, I do not think he would take the risk just to have a freezer of venison.


*"When a sperm cell and an egg cell unite, they form a one-celled fertilized egg. This cell is totipotent, which means that it has the potential to give rise to any and all human cells, such as brain, liver, blood or heart cells. The first few cell divisions in embryonic development produce more totipotent cells. After four days of embryonic cell division, the cells begin to specialize." See What Are Stem Cells?

**As the Catholic Encyclopia article brings out, Kant's categorical imperative is not without problems. Nevertheless, the Holy Father says something similar in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae: "As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used." (#57)

See also Veritatis Splendor: "since the human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure, the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness." (#49)

***People, who otherwise urge us to look beyond externals, often miss this point. For example in testimony before the U.S. Senate Mary Tyler Moore stated, "an embryo bears about as much resemblance to a human as a goldfish."

However, Chris Currie, 37, who has had diabetes since age 11, said he views stem cell research quite differently.
___"I'd love for there to be a cure for diabetes," he said, but explained he opposes embryonic stem cell research because he believes embryos to be human beings from the earliest stages of conception.
___His opposition "isn't based on religious feelings," he said. "Please don't caricature me by lumping me in with the Religious Right. I oppose stem cell research on humanistic grounds. I don't want to be cured if curing me would mean killing another human being. Even if that would save my life."
See Stem Cell Research Poses Spiritual Quandary

See also: Embryonic Stem Cell Statement (Catholic Leadership Conference)

Homily on Stem-Cell Research

National Geographic July 2005 article on Stem Cells: One Culture They Fear Investigating