The Teaching of the Catholic Church
A prenatal is defined as any human being from conception to birth. Human life begins at conception and develops through several different stages until the prenatal is viable outside the womb and is born. The word “prenatal” means “before birth.” A prenatal is a developing human being.
Embryonic stem cells are obtained from prenatals at a point very early in development. Obtaining these cells typically results in the destruction of the prenatal. The direct and voluntary killing of a prenatal is always a serious sin against God because prenatal life is developing human life.
“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 57).
This teaching of the Catholic Church is an infallible teaching based on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. It is also taught by natural law, that is, by the natural light of reason placed in humanity by God. The Magisterium of the Church, in the above quote, affirms that this doctrine is infallible. Therefore, any method for obtaining embryonic stem cell that results in the death of the prenatal is gravely immoral, regardless of how the embryo's life begins.
Certain New Techniques
Some researchers have attempted to get around the immorality of using embryonic stem cells by finding various techniques that can create embryonic stem cells without beginning with a fertilized egg (i.e. a zygote). All such attempts cannot possibly change the fact that embryonic stem cells are, by definition, cells from a developing human being. And this developing human life is terminated for the sake of these medical experiments. The reason that embryonic stem cell research is immoral is completely unaffected by any technique that creates an embryo while by-passing fertilization. It is still gravely immoral. In fact, creating a developing human being by any kind of scientific technique (i.e. not by natural conception) is itself gravely immoral. So, such a technique would only add one serious sin to another.
Some researchers have claimed that it is not immoral to terminate the life of a developing embryo, if it can be shown that this embryo was unable to reach developmental maturity, due to the very technique that began the development of this human life. In other words, if the embryonic cells could not possibly develop into a baby, they claim that it is then moral to terminate its life. On the contrary, the Catholic Church teaches that it is always gravely immoral to directly and voluntary kill a developing human being. The claim that such a developing human being could not have reached viability is irrelevant. In addition, deliberately creating a developing human being which, by design, cannot reach developmental maturity is itself also gravely immoral. Again, such attempts only pile one grave immoral act upon another.
One particular researcher recently devised a technique that causes a human egg to divide as if it had been fertilized. This technique causes the same process of development to occur as occurs in the earliest stages of human life. The technique produces embryonic stem cells, therefore, the technique produces a developing human being. This clever technique is merely a form of human cloning (i.e. producing a human being, or a developing human being, by a scientific technique using a cell from only a single parent). This new technique itself is gravely immoral, and killing the developing human being created by this technique is also gravely immoral. All this researcher has invented is a new way to commit a serious sin against God.
Adult Stem Cells
Another type of stem cell exists, called the adult stem cell. These cells have the same DNA and the same set of genes as embryonic stem cells. Research has shown that adult stem cells show the same potential as their embryonic counterpart to turn into various types of somatic cells (i.e. various type of cells in the human body). But these adult stem cells can be obtained from adult human beings (or from children, without harming them, or from the blood found in the umbilical cord after the delivery of a new-born). Research with adult stem cells does not require the killing of a prenatal to obtain the cells, therefore, this type of research is not necessarily immoral.
DNA determines the capability of each human cell. Since adult stem cells contain the same DNA and the same set of genes as embryonic stem cells, they naturally have the same potential for use in medical research and medical treatments for injury and disease. Any benefit which could possibly come from embryonic stem cell research could, therefore, necessarily also be derived from adult stem cell research.
The end does not justify the means, so even if embryonic stem cell research offered unique benefits, it would still be immoral and unjustifiable. But, in fact, embryonic stem cell research does not offer anything that could not be derived instead from adult stem cells. Any research done using embryonic stem cells could instead be done using adult stem cells.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 2, 2004