So, what’s the deal, you may ask, with the Catholic Church and Stem Cell Research? The Church is all about keeping people alive at whatever cost, but it’s against stem cells? What’s the dealie, yo?
First of all… The Church is not against Stem Cell Research, per se. Rather, she speaks out against embryonic stem cell research. Let’s start with some history:
If you follow my blog, you may already know that I am a Badger… meaning I earned my degrees at the University of Wisconsin- Madison (BS ’02, MS ’05.) What you may not know is that UW-Madison is essentially one of the birth places of embryonic stem cell research. Back in 1995 non-human primate stem cells were isolated there and later on, human lines. So what’s the big deal with stem cells?
Stem Cells are cells found in multi-cellular organisms which have the ability to differentiate into other specialized cells. The two ‘news-worthy’ types (embryonic and adult) differ in one major way: embryonic stem cells have the ability to become ANY of the over 200 different cell types in the human body (they are also known as pluripotent cells,) while adult stem cells (somatic or germline, depending on the origin of the cell) are multipotent, meaning they are limited to becoming the type of tissue from which they originated. Pluripotent Adult Stem cells do exist, but they are very rare in the body. It is possible to induce pluripotency in some cells (i.e. skin cells) by using genetic reprogramming but these would not be considered stem cells. Stem Cells can also be obtained from fetal and amniotic sources, but we don’t hear about those as much.
Adult Stem Cells are currently being used in the treatment of leukemia via bone marrow transplants which is, right now, one of the only established treatments using stem cells. As of right now, embryonic stem cells are still in the research phases, but the possibilites exist for Adult Stem Cells being used to treat Parkinsons, cancer, spinal cord injuries, wound healing, diabetes and arthrtis, to name a few. However, because of the nature of embryonic stem cells they have the tendency to develop into tumors also referred to as teratomas which can threaten the life of the recipient.
The problem with embryonic stem cells is that the cells are taken from an early stage embryo, called a blastocyst, thereby killing the embryo. Catholics, among other faiths and persons, believe that life begins at conception, so taking the cells from the embryo is kin to taking a life in order to research possible cures to extend another life. The Church teaches us that using evil means to obtain a good is not worth it, so to speak. The practice is often justified because the currently established lines come from embryos that are the un-used embryos from In Vitro Fertilization with the thought being… “well, we have these embryos here and they are doing nothing but sitting frozen in stasis, so at least we are using them.” In short, the Church says in the Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae, that
“the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized” (I, 1).
But the ethical use of embryos in research is not the only question. Another question to ask ourselves is: Should we continue with our policy of research into high-tech, expensive therapies that may not be available to many citizens because they are uninsured, underinsured, or because their insurance plans might not cover experimental treatments? Is it right that not everyone would be able to take advantage of stem cell therapies? In short, the Church is very supportive of scientific progress and using science to the betterment of human life, but not at the cost of it’s smallest humans.
So, my opinion: I am a science nerd, through and through. My first job after college was in a cancer research lab. My Masters Degree is in Human Pathology, I find disease and it’s research fascinating. However, I don’t agree with the use of embryos in research. I don’t agree with taking a life to further a life. That last statement can be a hard one to follow, after all how can we say that one life is worth more than another? We can’t, and that’s my point.
Next Week: In Vitro Fertilization. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. But please, keep things respectful and constructive!
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