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Ethicist stresses moral inviolability of embryonic stem cells

Australian Salesian Fr Norman Ford yesterday told a Washington conference that the killing of human embryos for research or therapeutic purposes is out of the question, whether or not they are formed by IVF or cloning.

Fr Ford, Director of Melbourne's Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics, was speaking at a conference at the Catholic University of America.

He said the biblical texts and the early Christian tradition, taken as a whole, portray God as actively present throughout the human formative process, and especially for the creation of each human being's spiritual soul.

"In biblical times it was simply taken for granted that any assault upon life in the womb was an offence against God and a rejection of the divine gift of life," he said. "Biblical texts show they stand for a culture of prenatal life and provide strong theological grounds for saying that human embryos belong to God their Creator and for claiming that they have intrinsic value, worthy of absolute moral respect."

The conference - The Stem Cell Debate: The Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America - set out to reflect on the "beneficence" of embryonic research to humanity. It sought to establish whether the human person should be regarded as "an end in himself or herself", or whether one person can be sacrificed for the good of another.

Fr Ford stressed that the end does not justify the means.

He told the conference that if a materialistic (rather than metaphysical or religious) philosophy is adopted, reference to humans made in God's image and the sanctity of human life fades out of focus and utilitarianism moves to centre stage. He admitted that utilitarianism has a place in ethical decision making, "but not as the fundamental criterion of morality".

Fr Ford said researchers should "abandon using [embryonic stem] cells, and concentrate on ethical alternatives such as adult stem cells, and especially pluripotent stem cells from placental cord blood". He pointed out that such cells have recently been discovered in Germany by Gesine Kögler and colleagues.

Highlights from the talk given by Dr Norman Ford SDB at the Stem Cell Debate in Washington at the Catholic University of America on 4 October 2004

Ethics, Public Policy and Law - The Stem Cell Debate: The Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America (Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law)
Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics
Practical Problems with Embryonic Stem Cells (US Conference of Catholic Bishops)
Stem Cell Research (Trinity College, Perth)
Stem Cell Research (

5 Oct 2004