In order to discuss the moral and ethical dilemmas associated with stem cell research, a differentiation must be established between the use of adult stem cells (ASC) accepted by the Church, and the use of embryonic stem cells (ESC) that are condemned by the Church.
ASC, also known as “non-embryonic” stem cells, are present in adults, children, infants, placentas, umbilical cords, and cadavers. Our specific interest as it relates to the topic of this paper is to note that obtaining stem cells from these sources does not result in certain harm or death to a human being.[i] Therefore, there are no bioethical concerns at the basic research level associated with using ASC, and the Church supports these means. Furthermore, ASC treatments are producing results. According to Dr. David Prentice, Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at Family Research Council,
“Over 60,000 people are helped worldwide by adult stem cells every year. [ASC] are used to treat spinal cord injuries, cancers, anemia, and are showing promise in treating heart damage, multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, and dozens of other diseases. Adult stem cells also have the only reported case of successful treatment of a Parkinson’s patient documented in the scientific literature.” [ii]
However, ESC are derived differently. They are removed from human embryos in a process that destroys the embryo, which is to say, kills a human being. In other instances, embryos are tragically termed as “leftovers” from the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) process. [iii] These so-called “leftover” embryos are nothing less than human beings, but our own United States Department of Health and Human Resources, National Institute of Health website, in complete disregard to the true nature of these embryos dryly states:
“Clinics use this method to treat certain types of infertility, and sometimes, during the course of these treatments, IVF embryos are produced that are no longer needed by the couples for producing children.” [iv]
Thus, we discover one nexus of the immoral union of IVF and ESC: No matter how well intentioned the couple, the IVF process itself ultimately supplies the ESC industry with human embryos necessary for embryonic stem cell experimentation and research. The Catholic Church holds fast to the teaching that each embryo destroyed in the name of research, is a life destroyed. And each frozen “leftover” embryo, even when not used for research (and/or is simply discarded) is still physically compromised by the freezing process itself, reducing its ability to survive.[v]
To be sure, we are not discussing insignificant or small numbers. Researchers report that from 1989 – 2007 five million IVF babies were born.[vi] But if 5 million IVF babies were actually born, how many additional embryos remain frozen in “storage” as the immoral legacy of each IVF act? It is estimated there are 400,000 IVF produced embryos in frozen storage in the United States.[vii] And how many human embryos have been discarded? The fertility industry regulator, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has recorded IVF processes for over the past 22 years. In a report made public by the Health Minister of Great Britain, Lord Howe, they reported last year that 1.7 million embryos created for IVF had been thrown away.[viii] When we strip away the sterile language proponents use to describe IVF activities, what is really being stated is, “A human life has been murdered or thrown away.”
Any parent can understand the motivation of a childless couple to have a child. The trouble with IVF is not that the desire for raising a child is wrong or immoral, but in the details of that desire. No objective good can be justified if it is achieved through evil. As objectively good as it is for a couple to desire a child, that desire cannot be satisfied by embracing evil in order to achieve this good end.
Pope Paul VI was very clear on this point in his Encyclical Letter “On the Regulation of Birth” when he wrote, “It is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom. [To engage in evil] is unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being.” [ix] The Pope’s timeless comments address the demand for IVF by charitably asking couples to consider embracing God’s will for them and live by faith; that if they are meant to conceive a child, God will surely provide them with a child.
But what cannot happen, as Fr. Tad Pacholczyk pointed out so clearly in an article published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, is that the marriage act necessary for conceiving children be eliminated and replaced by a suite of fundamentally immoral actions, linked together in such a way as to produce a child. What IVF does is separate out the demonstration of love between a man and woman in marriage, from the child that necessarily flows from that love. As Fr. Pacholczyk explained, “IVF is really the flip-side of contraception: rather than trying to have sex without babies, we try to have babies without sex.”[x] Therefore, IVF, especially for any self-professed Catholic, is prohibited on both bioethical and moral grounds.
What is behind the spread of IVF? One reason is there are too few bioethicists today willing to lend their voices to speak out against the darker, immoral sides of both ESC and IVF. Once again, we find the Catholic Church clergy and laity are one of the few voices willing to be speak forcefully and publicly against these practices. And in an example of, “Putting your money where your mouth is,” in 2010 the Vatican donated roughly $3million to support researchers who were looking at the therapeutic benefits of adult intestinal stem cells. Also, in 2011 the Vatican donated $1 million to an adult stem cell company.[xi]
But in a “man bites dog” sad but true observation, some ethicists have sold themselves out as hired guns, willing to lend not only their professional standing, but their personal integrity, to drug companies and biotech firms. This “divided house” so to speak, sends a mixed message to the world. How so? When professional Ethicist A in so many words blesses the practices of IVF and ESC, while Ethicist B condemns one or both, what is the public to do? What are they to understand? Predictably, as mentioned above we have seen large numbers of people suppress their own conscience, not to mention the teaching of the Church, and simply follow the advice of whichever ethicist has supported the view they wanted to hear without regard to the larger moral and ethical issues at work. Anyone who sells out the Truth for money will have much to answer for.
In Pope John Paul’s encyclical letter on human life, in Chapter I he takes us all the way back to the dawn of humanity and the first recorded murder of Cain killing Abel. He then subsequently identifies the various methods used to attack and destroy human life, such as genocide, abortion, and euthanasia. [xii] By applying the principle that a murder remains a murder regardless of how, when, or by what method the murder is committed, by association the Pope has placed IVF and ESC precisely where it belongs in the pantheon of murder: As legitimate next door neighbors to all the other historical abominations and insults to human life. Pope John Paul wants us to understand there is no cover, not even a fig leaf of cover, to hide behind which refutes that the destruction of embryonic human life is still categorically, murder, and the moral equivalent of Cain killing Abel.
Pope John Paul then proceeds to remind humanity that such actions will not go unpunished, a sobering reminder that there will be consequences for participating in these immoral acts, even if the act itself is in the pursuit of “good.” [xiii] Ethical evils cannot be committed even when the ultimate aim is demonstrably and unarguably good. He rightly calls our attention to the central question when he reminds us of the scripture, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Pope John Paul is asking who speaks for the life that is destroyed by ESC research. Who speaks for the new human life suspended in frozen animation, or discarded and destroyed as IVF embryos destined for ESC experimentation? Who will be their voice? With a deep understanding of the issues, Pope John Paul defeats specious arguments such as concerns for world overpopulation, insufficient food, and depletion of natural resources trotted out in an attempt to legitimize population control. Of course these issues should be addressed by the nations of the world, but always in a manner consistent with a culture that embraces and supports the Christian message of life, never death and murder. God would not leave humanity with a challenge that can only be resolved by resorting to murder. Indeed, how can something formed in the image and likeness of God be subjected to frozen preservation methods, research and experimentation, followed by an inevitable death?
Alas, as Pope John Paul reminds us, none of our current problems, or future problems, should be surprising to anyone, as once sin entered the world every manner and sort of personification of evil became inevitable. But it is in our own response to these challenges that we demonstrate our fidelity to the Gospel message of Christ. In these ethical and moral challenges, we find our own dignity as fellow human beings. It is through helping others, especially those least able to help themselves, that we demonstrate true love for each other. To achieve this end, “Pray, pray, pray” as our Blessed Mother teaches us. The only option not available to the Catholic Christian, is to do nothing.
The unborn are depending on us.
[i] Linda K. Bevington. “An Overview of Stem Cell Research” at The Center For Bioethics and Human Dignity; Trinity International University, August 2009, at
[ii] Dave Andrusko. “Once Paralyzed Man Given New Lease on Life Thanks to Adult Stem Cells” at Life News, 17 October 2013, at
[iii] Bevington, ibid.
[iv] Junying Yu and James A. Thomson. “Embryonic Stem Cells” at National Institute of Health, 16 September 2010, at
[v] Dr. Peter Saunders. “5 Million Children Have Been Born From IVF, One-Third in Last Six Years” at Life News, 28 October 2013, at http://www.lifenews.com/2013/10/28/report-5-million-children-have-been-born-from-ivf-one-third-in-last-six-years/
[vi] Bonnie Rochman. “5 million babies born through IVF in past 35 years, researchers say” at NBC News, 14 October 2013, at
[vii] Carlos Simoń and Antonio Pellicer, Stem Cells in Human Reproduction; Basic Science and Therapeutic Potential (London: Informa UK Ltd., 2007) p 145
[viii] Andrew Hough. “1.7 Million Embryos Thrown Away” at The Telegraph, 31 December 2012, at
[ix] Paul VI, Pope. “Paul VI, Pope (1968-07-25) Message of the Holy Father entitled, Humanae Vitae,” para 7, at
[x] Fr. Tad Pacholczyk. “Babies In Test Tubes” at National Catholic Bioethics Center, December 2005, at
[xi] Daniel Kuebler. “The Reality of Research: Why the Church is right about stem-cell research”, at National Catholic Register, 8 January 2012, at
[xii] John Paul II, Pope. “John Paul II, Pope (1995-03-25) Message of the Holy Father entitled, Evangelium Vitae,” at
[xiii] Pope John Paul II, ibid, para 62
Carlos Simoń and Antonio Pellicer, Stem Cells in Human Reproduction; Basic Science and Therapeutic Potential (London: Informa UK Ltd., 2007)