The Minneapolis StarTribune recently published a story detailing how University of Minnesota doctors are using bone marrow transplants for an experimental treatment to improve the lives of children suffering from a devastating genetic skin disease — signaling what could be an important advance in the use of adult stem cells.
A week earlier, the same newspaper carried a story about how adult stem cells — those found in adult human tissue and blood, not embryos — are being used for a variety of therapies and potential life-saving research.
The story pointed out:
“Adult stem cells are being studied in people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, heart attacks and diabetes. Some early results suggest stem cells can help some patients avoid leg amputation. Recently, researchers reported that they restored vision to patients whose eyes were damaged by chemicals.
“Apart from these efforts, transplants of adult stem cells have become a standard lifesaving therapy for perhaps hundreds of thousands of people with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood diseases.”
In principle, this is all good news to which the church gives its blessing.
If you’re surprised by that statement, you’ve been listening too much to those who would like to convince you (wrongly) that the church is hostile to science.
The church is fully supportive of adult stem-cell research. Earlier this year, I wrote about how foundations affiliated with an international biopharmaceutical company and the Pontifical Council for Culture planned to work together to educate people around the world about the benefits of adult stem-cell research to treat disease and alleviate suffering.
The church, however, opposes embryonic stem-cell research because it requires the destruction of a living human embryo in order to harvest the cells.
Does that mean the church is ultimately more concerned about protecting clumps of cells than helping people who suffer from terrible diseases?
The embryo is more than just a clump of cells — it is nascent human life. Anyone who tries to argue otherwise is blind to the facts of Biology 101. And religion, at its best, is about protecting and nurturing human life — no matter its age, ability or perceived usefulness to others. When human life and dignity are threatened, the church must speak up.
Think of it this way: Advancements in nuclear science — understanding atoms and how they work — have led to some wonderful medical and health-related advancements, including cancer treatments.
But nuclear science has also led to the development of nuclear weapons, and people of faith (and no faith) have been working for decades to stop their production and use because they pose a dangerous threat to human life.
Does working for an end to nuclear weapons and weapons-related research make one an opponent of nuclear science? Obviously not. Religion and ethics help us determine the moral parameters in which science ought to operate for the benefit of humankind.
Some may object to this comparison, noting that the goal of nuclear weapons is to destroy human life while the goal of embryonic stem-cell research is ostensibly to help others.
But embryonic stem-cell research involves the destruction of human life as an integral step on the way to an otherwise noble goal, and that is where the moral problem lies.
The end can’t justify the means: You can’t intentionally destroy human life in order to benefit others. Justifying the taking of a human life in one of its earliest stages for a perceived benefit is the first step down a slippery moral slope.
That’s why advancements in adult stem-cell research are such welcome news. They’re leading to medical treatments — some proven, others promising — that don’t raise the same moral red-alert, and that’s something we can all support.