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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Stephen Napier | author
May 01, 2011
Filed under Culture of Life

The Vatican invests in stem cells

The Vatican’s investment in adult stem-cell research is a bold venture . . .

Dr. Stephen Napier

It’s almost passé these days to revile the Catholic Church for being “against science.” Yet critics continue to label the Church as uncaring about the sick because of its opposition to embryonic stem-cell research.

The secular liberal culture assumes that the Church is not scientific, archaic in its moral commitments, and eschews virtually every modern development. None of these accusations is true, and the charge that the Church is against science is laughable. The Church pioneered the university system and developed dozens of scientific methods and principles.

The Church has long taught that medicine and the healing arts are a participation in Christ’s own ministry of healing the sick. In 1998, Blessed John Paul II told the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Heath Care Workers that “every act of helping the sick, whether in the foremost health-care structures or in the simple structures of developing countries, if done with a spirit of faith and fraternal sensitivity, becomes in a very real sense a religious act.”

Clearly no one, after reading this, would get the sense that the Church is against science and the development of medical therapies. John Paul is telling us that whether health care workers know it or not, they are participating in Christ through their work. And yet, we still hear charges of being “against science” with regard to the Church’s position on human embryonic stem cell research.

In fact, the Church teaches that some stem-cell therapies are permissible — therapies developed using adult stem cells, stem cells that have been reprogrammed to be more plastic and changeable, stem cells extracted from the umbilical cord blood, and stem cells extracted from miscarried fetuses. This is quite a list. The truth is that the only stipulation the Church places on medical developments is that they ought not to kill human beings in the process!

One of last year’s most underreported business-science stories had to do with the Holy See and stem-cell research. Last May, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture announced a joint five-year initiative with a company called NeoStem to expand research and raise awareness of adult stem-cell therapies. NeoStem’s Stem for Life Foundation, formed to create awareness about the promise of adult stem cells to treat disease, and the Pontifical Council’s foundation will work on a variety of collaborative activities to advance scientific research on adult stem cells, exploring their clinical application in the field of regenerative medicine — and the cultural relevance of such a fundamental shift in medical treatment options.

The Vatican has invested $1 million in NeoStem to develop these adult stem-cell therapies. It’s a rare move for the conservative Holy See to make a business investment like this. But its rarity is a lesson: The Church is serious about developing effective medical therapies that don’t involve destroying human beings in the process. This is a perfect example of the Church not simply issuing a “do not” against killing young human life, but taking it a step further by rendering a powerful “do” to develop effective and life-saving therapies.

Although the Church is stepping up by being proactive in the field of science, it still has an image problem. And the problem stems from ignorance — ignorance of what the Church holds dear. To a certain extent, the secular liberal public doesn’t get it. “Pro-choice” politicians, for example, have typically said that they are personally opposed to abortion but don’t think that the decision to have an abortion should be dictated by the government.

Such a position speeds across the border of the non-rational into the land of the ridiculous. If one is personally opposed to rape, then one would seek stiff laws and weaker evidentiary standards for convicting rapists. If one were personally opposed to murder, one would seek laws that prosecuted murderers and incarcerated them for very long periods of time. If one were personally opposed to stealing, one would enact laws that made stealing legally impermissible.

What this illustrates is that pro-abortion politicians, if they are being honest, don’t understand what abortion is. They don’t get it, nor do they understand the issues at stake. Abortion is the direct killing of innocent human life, a life which cannot speak for or defend himself — and therefore requires our protection. Such lives are the most vulnerable among us. To say that one is personally opposed to killing the most vulnerable among us, yet believes that such killing should be legal is utterly fatuous.

In the arena of human embryonic stem-cell research, the claim is even more ignorant. Many want to use taxpayer dollars for the destruction of young human beings. Clearly there’s a considerable amount of ignorance regarding human life and the protections human life is guaranteed under the Constitution. The Vatican has made a bold move by investing in NeoStem. If it’s promoted and explained correctly, this alliance may help clear up some of the ignorance regarding what Catholics consider most dear: human life.

Stephen Napier, Ph.D., is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.


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