Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Catholic Church Vigorously Supports Stem Cell Research and Treatment

In the framework of Catholic thinking, the Fifth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill) requires explicit protection of human life from the moment of conception until actual physical death. Also by a series of “penumbras and emanations,” a sensitive Catholic conscience includes (under that commandment) the need of good diet, exercise, appropriate recreation, regular check-ups, avoidance of unnecessary risks to “life and limb”[1] and good medical research. Such a conscience is highly compatible with, and indeed necessary for a sophisticated spiritual life. Indeed, real Catholicism and real science make congenial bedfellows. Within recent history, Pope John Paul II worked strenuously to exploit the resources of reason and science to enhance a Catholic understanding of “how God works.” More recently, for example, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Australia, Cardinal George Pell, offered $150,000 in grants for research into adult stem cells as a concrete commitment to morally licit scientific innovation.

Such an offer reflects an accurate picture of the Catholic Church and its vigorous support for the remarkable work done with stem cell so far. There have been some strikingly successful treatments, using stem cells, for spinal cord injuries, leukemia, Krabbe’s Leudodystrophy (a rare degenerative enzyme disorder) Parkinson’s disease and several others. The stem cells derived were from various sources. Sometimes, from pregnancy related tissues like umbilical cords, placentas and amniotic fluid. Other times, from bone marrow, livers, epidermis, retinas, skeletal tissues, intestine, brain, dental pulp. Some clinicians are using fat from liposuction for significant numbers of adult type stem cells. Some have used neural stem cells from cadavers—as late as 20 hours after death.

Clearly, such medical breakthroughs are very exciting inasmuch as stem cells can potentially be used to replace and heal damaged tissue in the body in a manner previously unknown. The enthusiasm for such research has rightly reached a very high level of expectation ---almost as if, in the future, one might have a “repair kit” in the medicine cabinet ready for any medical emergency. However, as is the case in things human and scientific, one must exercise some caution, step back for a moment and examine what we are saying. There are possibly some “catches” in the case. And there are some very real negatives which must also be examined.

The above rosy assessment focuses on adult stem cells or miscarriages. It does not accept what amounts to “the baby killing” mode of obtaining stem cells. But even with the inclusion of the miscarriage possibility, it does appear that adult cells are preferable to embryonic stem cells. There are huge reasons why adult cells are preferable. They naturally exist in our bodies in the microenvironment of an adult body as natural repair mechanisms for many of our physical ills. They “fit.” Whereas, when we introduce embryonic stem cells into an adult microenvironment, something seriously negative can happen. Scientific caution is necessary here. With the use of embryonic stem cells, teratomas (or tumors) can develop which cannot easily be controlled. Immune system reactions can occur. These cannot be sloughed off as minor points. If transplanted cells are attacked by the immune system, the entire tissue will be the target of what can be a disastrous attack. This is the tissue in which the “foreign” cell resides. (i.e. embryonic cell in adult microenvironment)

Dr. Maureen L. Condic, professor of neurobiology (University of Utah, School of Medicine) in an article appearing in First Things, Jan. 2007, questions the whole notion of embryonic stem cell research. She notes that since 2002 (NIH database) there have been 80+ highly funded research projects investigating human embryonic stem cells. In 2006, NIH anticipated spending was “just $24,3000,000.”[2] There have been 900 research papers submitted since 2002 plus an additional 1,000+ papers investigating animal research. Dr. Condic wrote in 2002: “…..there is no compelling scientific argument f or the public support of research on human embryos.” She informs her readers that scientists define serious scientific challenges as problems that have stubbornly resisted the best attempts of science to solve them. After 30 years of billions of dollars spent and countless hours of research with no results, immune rejection and tumor formation are still serious scientific and medical challenges. What has come of all the futile research? Using the “line” of Ron McKay of NIH (relative to the admitted studied ambiguities of some lobbyists[3]) which states that “…people need a fairy tale…”,Dr. Condic asks her definitive question. “Isn’t it time Americans recognize the promise of obtaining medical miracles from embryonic stem cells for the fairy tale it really is?”

Dr. Tad Pacholczyk, neuroscientist from Yale, Harvard Medical and Massachusetts General Hospital solidifies her point.[4] He states the following: “ Adult stem cells have been used successfully in human therapies for many years. But on the other side NO therapies in humans have ever been successfully carried out using embryonic stem cells.” In the light of this information it does seem unintelligent and imprudent to cut into the funding for already proven therapies using adult stem cells and re-direct the money to an unproven and highly resistant “possible.”

Hence, one finds it difficult to understand the ambiguous positions of famous names who drumbeat the virtues of embryonic stem research. Television and radio commercials sometimes feature Hollywood types who plead disingenuously[5] for ESCR (Embryonic stem cell research). This is sometimes done very slickly for funding without ever actually mentioning that human embryos are involved! The trick is to play on human sympathy. Sometimes, it is done most successfully on an uniformed public. It prompts one to ask several questions. What is their real motivation? What is their scientific information? Is it a case of mere ignorance, misplaced compassion or is it agenda? It has also been suggested that there is the possibility of enormous amounts of money to be made. Is this sheer nobility and humanitarianism?

It is particularly surprising in the case of educated alleged practicing Catholics. These persons have at least the information I, and thousands of others, have available. And, additionally, they have the incomparable guidance of the Holy Spirit through His Church. How can it be that the Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson (D) is allocating $6 million in state taxpayer funds not only for the laudable adult stem cell research but also for embryonic stem cell research? The Archbishop and Bishops of New Mexico have urged him to practice Catholic beliefs in his important work. They, in effect, remind him that ESCR is destroying human life. Is his Faith of such little import?

The Governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter (D), was similarly challenged (on another level) by Archbishop Chaput of Denver. Ritter plans to fund Planned Parenthood which Ritter says “…….specializes in the business of preventing them” (sic: children). Perhaps, to these gentlemen, being a Catholic is merely a cultural, social or familial accoutrement, to be kept in some harmless, non-meaningful “closet”. It does cause one to wonder. Only God knows, of course, but in these turbulent times, we , in the trenches, find such behavior troubling.

But, to the point. Does the Catholic Church support stem cell research? Of course. Catholic concern for the treatment of illness has been legendary throughout the ages. However, as a spiritual and humanitarian leader, it cannot and does not support the barbarism of cloning which, as a procedure, specifically destroys a human embryo in order to extract embryonic stem cells. While there has been an almost fevered race to generate a human clone, there have been only a few reports of alleged human cloning, none of which is verifiable. Some have been clear chicanery promoted by a “quasi-religious group for its own publicity” (Cf. Dr. Condic) The most outrageous was that claimed by a South Korean group (March 2004) led by Hwang Woo-Suk. The miracle has been accomplished. “We have eleven patient-specific stem cells lines from human clones……” Immediately, there was a clamor to have the Bush restriction on ESCR removed. However, it was soon discovered that Hwang’s “miracle” was a scientific fraud and that all the claimed cloned stem cell lines were fakes. Dr. Condic assures us that this should be no surprise. It is extremely difficult to clone any animal. Human cloning would be much more difficult than any other.

Even Dolly the sheep must be seen in perspective. Dolly was born as an abnormal. And the only one to survive to live birth out of 277 cloned embryos! How difficult to clone anything! Also, Dolly had to be “euthanized” due to her poor health. This was not so highly publicized as was her birth.

However, with all of the above said, let us suppose that modern technologies, now available (or soon will be) are able to use embryonic type stem cell without crossing any moral lines. (Note: embryonic type not embryonic stem cells). Suppose those germ cells (which can be derived from the testicles) can be transmuted into embryonic-type stem cells and have the same alleged flexibility claimed for ones derived out of embryos! The Church would have no objection since there is no killing involved here.. But we would insist (as with good science) that research be done on animals first.

While we say “Yes, Catholicism is highly supportive of stem cell research and its use to alleviate human ills” at the same time we say “ We are highly supportive of the culture of life. We oppose the culture of death which is inherent in embryonic stem cell research, a highly speculative project.”

[1] Some Catholic moralists hold smoking is immoral since it is such a clear hazard to health. Some similarly argue that prize fighting or boxing is forbidden since it so often damages participants. I have heard analogous assessment of football where so many players are seriously injured.
[2] Does this imply greater expectation of further vast funding? To whom does this money go? Cui bono? Who is benefiting financially from all the lobbying? Do big pharmaceutical firms have totally altruistic interest in ESCR?
[3] George Daley, stem cell researcher at Children’s Hospital in Boston admitted that his optimistic prediction (relative to cloned tissue) has “yet to be proven.”
[4] Stem cell research, Cloning and Human Embryos: Family Research Council, Washington D.C. 2005
[5] It was rumored that one movie type deliberately omitted his symptom controlling medication so that he could be filmed in a commercial advocating stem cell research. With hands trembling and head rolling he masterfully pleaded that the funding should be allotted to research ( it seemed with implication of ECR)—apparently implying that such finding would quickly clear up his and others’ disease.

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