Church merges science with faith
By Alistair Burns
The B.C. Catholic
Stem cells are at the heart of the latest bioethical battle for the Catholic Church. They are the sometimes enigmatic microscopic organisms, able to increase in numbers through mitosis, that are found in numerous places in the body.
"The Church does not reject science; far from it. Instead, there must be a respect for the sacredness of human life,' said Father John Horgan, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, and a former chaplain to St. Paul's Hospital.
Stem cells are either embryonic or adult. Embryonic are present in the unborn, while adult stem cells are found in anyone, regardless of age.
"Initially, everyone thought stem cells would be the panacea for everything, but that was wrong. So far, all major breakthroughs have come from adult stem-cell research," said Dr. Jim Lane, president of the Catholic Physicians' Guild of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, and a family physician.
The Church is not opposed to research on adult stem cells because the extraction causes no harm. It "opens up possibilities for healing chronic degenerative illnesses," commented Pope Benedict XVI during a bioethics conference at the Vatican last year.
On the other hand, embryonic research happens either by removal of cells directly from human embryos, causing their death, or from aborted human fetuses.
"The Church regards as reprehensible the use of aborted fetal tissue as an instrumentation," Father Horgan explained. "We oppose the destruction of all human life from conception until the point of natural death."
Both types of stem cell are unspecialized, which means they can continue to multiply until they are needed to repair a part of the body. Then they develop into what the body needs. The opposite, or a specialized example, would be a white blood cell, a "first responder" to a flu virus.
Adult stem cells multiply less readily in the laboratory. Some researchers argue adult stem cells become more difficult to use for further research.
However the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute at the University of Toronto has disagreed with that claim, and Dr. Lane confirmed the vast majority of scientific advances have come using only adult cells.
According to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, clinical trials in a number of countries are using both types of stem cells to create replacement tissues and organs.
Their statement, "Stem Cells: Astonishing Promises but at What Cost?" says many scientists hope further research will lead to remissions in some diseases such as leukemia, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
Adult stem-cell research remains the only option for the faithful, though. "Giving stem cells and blood should be seen as part of the ordinary ethos of generosity practised by Roman Catholics. And the Church has always supported organ donation and transplantation," noted Father Horgan.
He suggested if more people strive to make ordinary this extraordinary practice of donating adult stem cells, then the cells supported by Vatican policy would be more readily available.
"With more advances, thanks to adult cells, hopefully in the future, embryonic and fetal stem cells will be used less and become more of a non-issue," said Dr. Lane.