Many misinformed people think the Catholic Church is against stem cell research. They are wrong. Our Church is very much in favor of medical research that enhances human life and that can bring us cures for many terrible human sicknesses. Why wouldn’t the Catholic Church be in favor of anything available through medical science that gives us cures from suffering and illness?
We need to be clear about a very important distinction, however, namely the moral difference between stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research. As Catholics, we call for respect for human life from birth to natural death. We acknowledge that human life is a gift of God, given to us in trust by God. Human life comes from God and goes to God. It is not our possession to deal with as we please. An embryo is human life in its earliest stage of existence. There are those who argue that human life is ours to deal with as we please, that God has nothing to do with it, and that the Bible has nothing to say on the matter. They are wrong. As a matter of fact there are many passages in the Bible dealing with human life within the womb. Here are just a few examples:
In the Old Testament Book of Job we read: “If ever I have infringed the rights of slave or maidservant in legal action against me – what shall I do, when God stands up? What shall I say, when he holds his assize? They, no less than I, were created in the womb by the one same God who shaped us all within our mothers.” (Job 31:13-15) In the Psalms we hear: “…from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” (Psalm 22:10) “It was you who created my inmost self, and put me together in my mother’s womb; for all these mysteries I thank you: for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works. You know me through and through, from having watched my bones take shape when I was being formed in secret, knitted together in the limbo of the womb. You had scrutinized my every action, all were recorded in your book, my days listed and determined, even before the first of them occurred.” (Psalm 139:13-17) “Thus says Yahweh who made you, who formed you from the womb, who is your help: Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant…” (Isaiah 44:1-2) The prophet Jeremiah exclaims: “The word of the Lord came to me thus: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5) The New Testament presents us with God at work particularly in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth, giving us Jesus and His cousin John the Baptist. St. Matthew tells us: “He had made up his mind to do this when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, `Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.'” (Matthew 1:20-21) The angel Gabriel announces the birth of John the Baptist saying: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15) St. Paul makes the same claim as did Isaiah and Jeremiah, stating: “But the time came when he who had set me apart before I was born and called my by his favor…” (Galatians 1:15)
But, the question is asked, isn’t the decision to destroy an embryo strictly a moral, faith-based decision? Isn’t it a question of one’s personal faith only? No, it is not. Infanticide is the deliberate killing of a newborn baby. Infanticide isn’t simply a moral or religious decision. Ownership of a slave isn’t something that is a strictly private choice. A religious ritual involving human sacrifice isn’t simply a religious act. The state has an interest in all of these actions because of its duty to preserve, protect, and defend human life. What is a legal issue is often a moral issue, and what is an immoral act is often an illegal act. The same activity can be both immoral and illegal. The reverse is likewise true.
Well, what about embryos? Aren’t they simply little bunches of body cells? Some people see them as just that. What we need to remember is that each one of us here was once just “a little bunch of cells.” Each one of us here was once an embryo. Embryos are human life and every human life was once an embryo. An embryo, if nurtured, protected, and cared for will eventually grow to be eighty years old. When you were an embryo you had the entire DNA coding necessary to bring you to who you are today. You not just a little bunch of cells way back when you were an embryo. You had all of the genetic coding then that you have right now. You are, right now, more than just a collection of cells. You were, back when you were an embryo, more than just a collection of cells. To kill you now would be a terrible thing to do. To kill you back then would have been equally as terrible. So is the Catholic Church against stem cell research? No, it’s in favor of stem cell research so long as it is not research that involves the destruction of human embryos.
There are many sources for stem cells that are not found in human embryos. Stem cells can be taken from human bone marrow, from human blood, from the uterus, and from umbilical cords discarded after birth. As a matter of fact, stem cell therapies using cells taken from umbilical cords have been quite successful in treating some types of cancer. There are dozens of therapies using adult stem cells that are presently used by doctors in quite and array of treatments. Stem cells in later stages of development are called adult stem cells. The Church has no quarrel with harvesting adult stem cells. It applauds medical science for the benefits derived from such cells and from the research employed using adult stem cells.
The only area that causes the Church a major moral problem is found in embryonic stem cell harvesting. It is not moral, we say, to destroy a human life for the purposes of research. There are those who claim we have no right to impose our religious beliefs on others when it comes to this issue. But whether or not an embryo is a human life is not simply a matter of religion or of personal belief. It is not simply a faith statement. It is a matter of medical science. For the fact remains, if an embryo is protected and nurtured, it will grow to be eighty or more years old. That is a matter of fact, not of belief. It’s a statement of science, not simply of religion. Our faith in God isn’t just a matter of nice thoughts or personal opinion. Our faith is something more than merely being nice to others. Our faith ought to matter… matter enough for us always and everywhere to demand respect for human life in all of its forms wherever in this world we find it. For human life is not simply one of our possessions. We do not own it. It is a gift given to us by God to be nurtured, cared for, and respected in all places and at all times.