Thursday, March 8, 2007

Stem Cell Research: Back to the Basics

The Observer—Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Rockford
Publication date: June 3, 2005

Life Lines
By Patricia Pitkus Bainbridge
Director, Respect Life Office

Confusion and emotionalism seem to reign over the continuing debate on stem cell research. There is no lack of opinion, although many are based on disinformation, false assumption, and a misplaced sense of compassion. It’s important to sort through the facts to know what stem cell research entails and to understand that true compassion for the plight of another must never prompt us to engage in intrinsically evil actions. To accomplish this, we must go back to the basics.

Rev. Dr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk writes, “A stem cell is essentially a ‘blank’ cell, capable of becoming another more differentiated cell type in the body, such as a skin cell, a muscle cell, or a nerve cell. Stem cells can be used to replace or heal damaged tissues and cells in the body.” This is why there is so much interest in stem cell research. If these cells can be used to cure diseases or other debilitating conditions, why shouldn’t we support research utilizing them? That depends on which type of stems cells we are talking about.

There are two basic types of stem cells—embryonic and non-embryonic (adult). Embryonic stem cells are found in human embryos. Non-embryonic stem cells are found in adult tissues (skin, bone marrow, fat cells, etc.), umbilical cord blood, placentas, and amniotic fluid. When considering the morality of using stem cells, it is critical to know whether the stem cells under discussion are embryonic or non-embryonic.

Non-embryonic stem cell research is morally acceptable (provided consent is given) as no human being is killed in the process of extracting the cells. Embryonic stem cell research is morally objectionable because very tiny human beings must be destroyed in order to harvest their stem cells. As John Paul II commented, “Any treatment which claims to save human lives, yet is based upon the destruction of human life in its embryonic state, is logically and morally contradictory, as is any production of human embryos for the direct or indirect purpose of experimentation or eventual destruction.”

With media stories and congressional testimony pitting suffering individuals against embryos in Petri dishes who don’t look human (even though they look exactly like all humans do at that stage of development), misplaced compassion replaces sound judgment and many push for more embryonic stem cell research.

Some argue, “if it were your child or loved one who was suffering from a disease that could be cured by embryonic stem cells, would you deny them a chance for a cure?” Difficult as it might be, we simply must reject the killing of another human being —no matter his or her size or level of development—for the benefit of another.

Joni Eareckson Tada, who suffered a spinal cord injury, comments, “No one better understands the desire for a cure than I do, as a quadriplegic who has lived in a wheelchair for decades. . . research should not benefit . . . me or any other person with a disability at the expense of other human life. My husband and I support spinal-cord-injury research, but not to the degree that the benefits of any potential cure outweigh serious moral questions, effects on society, and whether it is an affront to God.”

Interestingly, only non-embryonic stem cells have been successful in treating diseases and spinal cord injuries. To date, fifty-eight diseases/conditions have been successfully treated utilizing non-embryonic stem cells. Not one has been successfully treated using embryonic stem cells. Even if the reverse were true, however, it would not affect the immorality of embryonic stem cell research. The end does not justify the means.

Embryonic stem cell research is wrong. No amount of media spin or misplaced compassion can change that. As House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay remarked recently on the floor of the House, “The best that can be said about embryonic stem cell research is that it is scientific exploration into the potential benefits of killing human beings.”

Copyright, 2005

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