Abortion and Embryonic Stem Cell Research

(August 26, 2006)


Recently, a company calling itself Advanced Cell Technology Inc. announced that they have developed a technique of removing individual stem cells from embryos without destroying the embryo.  It was this company's hope that this new advance might bring about a truce in hot debate over stem cell research and might even cause a reverse of President Bush's policy of blocking the use of government money for research on lines of stem-cells that were not already in existence.   After all, if the embryo is not harmed in the perfected process who could object to this new breakthrough in medical technology?

However it seems that there has been some very quick reactions particularly in the Catholic Church.  Bishop Elio Sgreccia, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, pointed out that it is not only wrong to experiment with embryos, or even to create them in petri-dishes, but that the separated cell thus produced is, in effect, a clone, that is "a second embryo". Bioethicist Richard Doerfinger, speaking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, accused the scientists involved of killing at least sixteen embryos in the course of their research. From such sharp responses, it is easy to see why one expert, Dr. John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester (England) predicts that the conflict would never be resolved through scientific advance, because the issue is ultimately ideological.  According to Harris, "The use of embryonic cells will only become non-controversial when it is accepted that the early embryo is of little or no moral significance."

Perhaps Harris correct, but It is not because the early embryo is necessarily considered to be a full-fledged "person" or that it has a "soul" at this point.  Those, according to Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., a Catholic neuroscientist and ethicist, are "very interesting intellectual questions, but they're not ultimately relevant."   What is critical, in the moral analysis, according to Pacholcyzk, is that we are dealing with "embryonic human" at this point, "a being with the potential to become an adult", and "a bearer of human rights".  From this point of view it is wrong to manipulate the human reproductive process in any way, even for well-intentioned humanitarian purposes. Such utilitarian thinking has taken us further down the same slippery slope that began with contraception (sex without reproduction) and has already resulted in widespread use of in vitro fertilization (reproduction without sex).   From this point of view, asks Pacholcyzk, what would really be so wrong with reproductive cloning as well? 

The problem, however, with this critique is that while it may seem to have a certain logical consistency on its side, it appears to be contradicted by what seems to most people to be common sense. For example, as when the Church condones, even sometimes promotes, natural family planning (often called the "rhythm method") of avoiding conception, many Catholics find it difficult to see where such a technique of birth control differs much from taking a pill, especially when the motives for doing either appears to be essentially the same.   Likewise, when  the Church even allows "indirect abortion", that is, the removal of mislocated ("ectopic") fetus when it would endanger the mother's life — it is hard for most people to see how the sacrifice of an even less developed embryo —which may have less than a 20% chance of developing to the fetus stage to begin with — cannot be justified when it contributes to the saving of a  human life.  It may very well turn out that a breakthrough in the use of adult stem cells rather than embryonic cells will turn out to be more efficient than using those from embryos.  If that happens, one might hope that the furor over this issue will disappear.  But until that happens, it will be difficult to persuade most people, including most Catholics, that blocking all experimentation with embryonic stem cells is really consistent with the goal promoting human life.