There are many issues of importance in the realms of human reproduction and genetics: From birth control and abortion to in-vitro fertilization and cloning. Today, though, I would like to talk about a topic that is no less relevant to us; that is, stem cell research and what it means to us as Christians.

Let’s begin at the beginning. What is a stem cell? A stem cell is a relatively unspecialized cell that, when it divides, can do two things: make another cell like itself, or (and here’s why they’re so interesting to researchers) make any number of cells with more specialized functions. For example, just one kind of stem cell in our blood can make new red blood cells, or white blood cells, or other kinds – depending on what the body needs. These cells are like the stem of a plant that spreads out in different directions as it grows; hence, the name “stem cells.”

Many people, including Catholics, believe that the church is opposed to all stem cell research. This is simply not the case. Most stem cell research uses cells obtained from adult tissue, umbilical cord blood, and other sources that pose no moral problem. Useful stem cells have been found in bone marrow, blood, muscle, fat, nerves and even the pulp of baby teeth. Some of these cells are already being used to treat people with a wide variety of diseases. Such research is morally permissible.

In fact, such research has shown promising results. Adult stem cells have been used in bone marrow transplants and in treatments of blood disorders and leukemia. Companies using adult stem cells are currently conducting clinical tests on treatments for heart attacks, liver disease, bone and cartilage diseases, and brain disorders, including Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Paul Sharkins of John Hopkins University recently published a study in which bone marrow stem cells from animal donors were converted into healthy liver cells. He stated that, “It is mind-blowing stuff. I never would have thought this possible.”

The difficulty for the church and for people of good will, regardless of religion, is when embryonic stem cells are used in research. These stem cells are obtained by producing an embryo in-vitro (i.e., in the laboratory) by fertilizing an ovum (egg), allowing it to develop for a few days in a petri dish and then extracting the cells, thereby killing the embryo. This research produces difficulty, because the harvesting of these stem cells kills the living human embryo. The church opposes the direct destruction of innocent human life for any purpose, including research.

As a church, we have consistently asserted that a human being must be respected as a person from the first moment of conception, the very first instance of existence. Each person is made in the image and likeness of God, and thereby has an inherent dignity beyond the rest of creation. The church’s Declaration on Procured Abortion states, “From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is, rather, the life of a new human being with its own growth. It would never be made human if it were not already human.” To this perpetual evidence, modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. Science has demonstrated that, “At the moment the sperm cell of the human male meets the ovum of the female and the union results in a fertilized ovum (zygote), a new life has begun.” Thus, the issue is not whether human life is present from the moment of conception, but how society ought to treat it. Clearly, human beings are not simply disposable biological material.

So is the church telling us to choose the lives of embryos over the lives of suffering patients? No. It is calling us to respect both, without discrimination. We must help those who are suffering, but we may not use a good end to justify an evil means. Moreover, treatments that do not require destroying any human life are at least as promising – they are already healing some conditions and are far closer to healing other conditions than any approach using embryonic stem cells. The choice is not between science and ethics, but between science that is ethically responsible and science that is not.

In spite of this, many believe that embryonic stem cells are the most effective for treating disease. But this, simply, is not the case. Embryonic stem cells have not helped a single human patient or demonstrated any therapeutic benefit, and animal trials suggest that they are too genetically unstable and too likely to form lethal tumours to be used for treatment anytime soon. By contrast, adult stem cells and other ethically acceptable alternatives have already helped hundreds of thousands of patients and new clinical uses expand almost weekly. Consider these few examples:

Have people with juvenile diabetes benefited from adult stem cells? Yes. Fifteen people with serious Type I (juvenile) diabetes became “insulin free” after adult pancreatic islet cell transplants; nine still need no insulin injections (American Diabetes Assoc. Report, June 24, 2001).

How many have benefited with embryonic stem cells? No person has benefited.

Have people with spinal cord injuries benefited from adult stem cells? Yes.

A young woman rendered paraplegic by a car accident can move her toes and legs after injection of her own immune-system cells into her severed spinal cord (Toronto Globe and Mail, June 15, 2001).

How many have benefited with embryonic stem cells? No person has benefited. Have people with immune deficiency benefited from adult stem cells? Yes.

Two children born without immune systems (“bubble boy” syndrome) have left their sterile environments and lead normal lives after bone marrow stem cell treatment (Science, The Washington Post, April 28, 2000).

How many have benefited with Embryonic stem cells? No person has benefited!

Have people who are visually impaired benefited from adult stem cells? Yes!

Several legally blind people can now see more clearly after their corneas were reconstructed with corneal stem cells (New England Journal of Medicine, July 13, 2000).

How many have benefited with Embryonic stem cells? No person has benefited

Nevertheless, a great push currently exists for embryonic stem cell research. This push often comes from celebrities with disabilities. Actors such as the late Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox have made public appearances, even before the American Congress, promoting embryonic stem cell research. I am sure that in their consciences, they were not aware that they desired the death of someone else to save their own lives. Yet, their pleas coupled with their conditions have pulled at the heart strings of many people who make moral decisions based on feelings, rather than on rational thinking. This push has even motivated legislators. Playing on the emotions of others, too, many politicians are willing to sometimes abandon rational thinking in the pursuit of another vote.

Keep in mind there is no real proof that embryonic stem cell research will bring about any more benefit than adult stem cell research. Dr. Ronald McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explaining why scientists have allowed society to believe wrongly that stem cells are likely to treat Alzheimer’s disease, has said, “People need a fairy tale.” He added, “Maybe that’s not fair, but they need a storyline that’s relatively simple to understand.” Michael Fumento, one of the most skilled debunkers of junk science, contrasts the use of adult and embryonic stem cells in this way: “Over the horizon are so-called adult stem cells, extracted from people of any age and from umbilical cords and placentas. Not only don’t they carry the moral baggage of embryonic stem cells, but research with them is much further along. Unfortunately, embryonic stem cell researchers have so powerful a PR machine that many influential people don’t even know there is an alternative.”

That said, it is still important to remember that even if embryonic stem cell research were promising, it would remain immoral, because it involves the purposeful creation and destruction of an innocent human being.

To use the words of Huxley, we have entered a “brave new world.” While we have the technology to do something, we do not necessarily have the moral mandate to do something. Just because we can do it doesn’t mean it ought to be done. Researchers cannot simply think and act as though they are free to do anything without being subject to moral parameters. We find ourselves sliding further down the slope of morality – first came the proliferation of contraception, then abortion, then in-vitro fertilization (which requires the destruction of many human embryos in order for someone to conceive) and now embryonic stem cell research. This is what John Paul II has described as a culture of death.

Yet, we can stand up to this culture and spread a gospel of life that respects every person, regardless of what they look like or what others may think of them. By telling others the truth about human life and the dignity of every human person, no matter how small, no matter how vulnerable and making choices for ourselves that show we support a culture of life, we can illumine the darkness of our world. Telling others about stem cell research is part of this task that Christ gives to us his followers, the task of spreading the gospel of life.

In regard to our elected officials, we can write to tell them how we feel about research performed on embryos and make sure that we do not vote for a person who, while representing us, would promote such research. It takes a lot of courage to defend life, especially humans who are not even born. Sometimes, we may experience conflict and misunderstanding and the words of the Gospel ring true: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”

Let’s promote research that enhances the dignity of each person, rather than destroying the lives of individuals. Let’s promote research that we can all live with.

Fr. Seamus Hogan is associate pastor at Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Toronto, where he delivered this homily on Nov. 14. He wishes to acknowledge the expertise of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “pro-life activities page” at and Fr. William Saunder’s article, “Stem Cell Research” at, without which his homily would not have been possible.