Catholics divided over stem cells

Salesian moral theologian Fr Norman Ford has weighed in on the stem cell debate among Catholics, insisting that there are pragmatic as well as moral reasons to oppose the cloning of human embryos and the use of embryonic stem cells.

"There is universal agreement for the use of some stem cells for medical research and therapeutic purposes," Fr Ford, director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics, said yesterday. "However, there is no need to clone human embryos: human life should not be created destined to be destroyed."

Fr Ford's comments came as debate among Catholic scientists flared over earlier comments by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of the Pontifical Council for the Family that excommunication "will be applied to the women, doctors and researchers who eliminate embryos and to the politicians who approve the law."

Explaining his views, Fr Ford said that "pluripotent stem cells are sought because once introduced into any part of the human body, they can adapt and develop into the same kind of cells or tissue that surround them.

"If they are placed within the heart muscle of a person who has suffered cardiac damage, pluripotent stem cells will become cardiac cells and repair the damage," he continued. "The same applies to other damaged cells, say neuronal or blood cells. In this way therapies and hope could be given to persons suffering from Parkinson's disease or accident victims with damaged spinal nerve tissue.

"In therapeutic cloning the Dolly procedure [named after the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult cell] is used where the enucleated egg's cytoplasm reprograms a body cell nucleus back to the totipotent state and thereby forms a single cell cloned embryo," he explained.

According to Fr Ford, a significant proportion of the Australian population is opposed to using pluripotent embryonic stem cells for research or therapies because they are obtained by destroying six-seven day old human embryos. "The moral objection applies whether the embryos are formed by IVF [In vitro fertilisation] or by a cloning procedure," he said.

He rejected utilitarian arguments in favour of using embryonic stem cells which "falter once alternative ethical sources of pluripotent stem cells can be found".

Fr Ford also pointed to a possible solution to the ethical problems that beset the field.

According to Fr Ford, human body cell nuclei could be transferred to "enucleated eggs" with the result that only "pluripotent stem cells" would be created. This can be achieved by making use of a gene called "Nanog."

This results in the formation of pluripotent stem cells which can be cultured to produce a pluripotent stem cell line. "No embryos would be formed and none would be destroyed," Fr Ford said.

"This would make both pragmatic and ethical sense without the need of therapeutic cloning," he concluded.

Fr Ford's comments came as fertility experts - including several who claim Catholic origins - slammed Cardinal Trujillo's comments as "a step back to the Inquisition."

The UK Telegraph reports that Dr Stephen Minger of King's College London, said: "Having been raised a Catholic I find this stance outrageous. Are they also going to excommunicate IVF doctors, nurses and embryologists who routinely put millions of embryos down the sink [instead of using them for research]? I would argue that it is more ethical to use embryos that are going to be destroyed anyway for the benefit of mankind."

Prof Julian Savulescu, an Australian expert in applied ethics at of the University of Oxford, said: "You can say it is a step back to the Inquisition.

"This amounts to religious persecution of scientists, which has no place in modern liberal societies. Presumably God will be the one to judge the scientists, not Church leaders."

The UK Telegraph also reports that Prof Cesare Galli - the first scientist in the world to clone a horse and works with imported embryonic stem cells - likened the Vatican to the Taliban, saying: "I was raised as a Catholic, I share Catholic values but I do not need to be told by the Church what to do or to think."

Closer to home, CathNews yesterday featured The Australian article by Prof Gustav Nossal who said that his Catholic background has instilled a belief in him "that everyone should be given the opportunity to live as free from serious illness as medical science can ensure." This, he says, is one of the reasons he supports stem cell research.

Embryonic Stem Cell Debate (Fr Norman Ford Press Release, 13/7/06)
Vatican 'is going back to days of Inquisition' (UK Telegraph 8/7/06)
Gustav Nossal: Cures, not clones, will flow from medical technologies (The Australian 13/7/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics

Ethicist warns on Reproductive Technology threat to children's rights (CathNews, 17/11/04)
Ethicist says fertility breakthrough sends wrong message (CathNews, 31/7/04)

14 Jul 2006