The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), gathered for its spring meeting in Orlando, on Friday issued its first formal statement addressing in detail embryonic stem cell research and the ethical controversies surrounding it. The nine-page statement said that harvesting embryonic stem cells is a “gravely immoral” and “absolutely unacceptable” act that involves the deliberate killing of innocent human beings.
In their statement, titled “On Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” the bishops said we must pursue scientific progress in “ethically responsible ways” that “respect the dignity of each human being.”
The bishops’ statement addressed several arguments cited to support embryonic stem cell research. It also warned that some researchers and lawmakers are advocating for further research involving human cloning, the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos, and the use of “fetal farming” techniques. In the last, an embryo is implanted in a woman’s uterus and develops for some weeks, after which it is killed and its useful tissues and organs are harvested by researchers.
Embryonic stem cell research is conducted in hopes of using the cells in therapeutic treatments. Some scientists believe embryonic stem cells have great potential for healing spinal cord injuries and afflictions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Such research, the bishops’ statement said, “does not force us to choose between science and ethics, much less between science and religion. It presents a choice as to how our society will pursue scientific and medical progress. Will we ignore ethical norms and use some of the most vulnerable human beings as objects, undermining the respect for human life that is at the foundation of the healing arts?”
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, the statement said “The Catholic Church ‘appreciates and encourages the progress of the biomedical sciences which open up unprecedented therapeutic prospects.’ At the same time, it affirms that true service to humanity begins with respect for each and every human life.
“Because life is our first and most basic gift from an infinitely loving God, it deserves our utmost respect and protection,” the statement continued.
The bishops rejected research proponents’ argument that any harm done in embryonic stem cell research is outweighed by the potential benefits, saying the idea that a good end can justify direct killing “has been the source of much evil in our world.” The statement argued that the same ethic that justifies taking some lives to help a sick patient today can be used to sacrifice the same patient tomorrow.
The bishops’ statement defended the humanity of the embryonic human being, saying “the human embryo, from conception onward, is as much a living member of the human species as any of us.” The statement said that those who do acknowledge the humanity of the embryo but insist it is too undeveloped to have full human rights actually deny that “we have inherent value simply by being members of the human family” and by implication deny that there are any inherent human rights.
“As believers who recognize each human life as the gift of an infinitely loving God, we insist that every human being, however small or seemingly insignificant, matters to God—hence everyone, no matter how weak or small, is of concern to us,” the statement said, noting that this is not only a Catholic teaching, but a position taken for granted in the Declaration of Independence.
“In our nation’s proudest moments Americans have realized that we cannot dismiss or exclude any class of humanity—that basic human rights must belong to all members of the human race without distinction,” the statement continued.
The bishops also argued against the position that killing embryos to produce stem cells is not depriving someone of life because they are “spare” embryos “who will die anyway.” Their statement said, “This argument is simply invalid. Ultimately each of us will die, but that gives no one a right to kill us. Our society does not permit lethal experiments on terminally ill patients or condemned prisoners on the pretext that they will soon die anyway.”
The bishops endorsed adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells, saying they are “now known to be much more versatile than first thought.”
“There is no moral objection to research and therapy of this kind, when it involves no harm to human beings at any stage of development and is conducted with appropriate informed consent. Catholic foundations and medical centers have been, and will continue to be, among the leading supporters of ethically responsible advances in the medical use of adult stem cells.”
The bishops’ statement closed by urging the rejection of all action that objectifies human beings.
“It now seems undeniable that once we cross the fundamental moral line that prevents us from treating any fellow human being as a mere object of research, there is no stopping point. The only moral stance that affirms the human dignity of all of us is to reject the first step down this path. We therefore urge Catholics and all people of good will to join us in reaffirming, precisely in this context of embryonic stem cell research, that ‘the killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act’,” the statement said.
The statement was approved by a vote of 191 to 1.
According to Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who spoke to conference attendees on behalf of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, the statement is planned as the first of two documents. The second document, planned to be presented “at a later date,” will discuss Church teaching on reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization.