Well, I’ve been heckled enough already to post something and I’m tired of editing and writing my proposal which should have been written about a year ago, so what better time than now to start posting about some of the information presented at the recent stem cell conference held at the Vatican? I think a good starting point is, paradoxically, the ending point of the conference itself – the address delivered by Pope Benedict XVI at the private audience granted the Saturday following the close of the conference. I’ll be quoting parts, but go here if you wish to read the whole address. As a conference bonus, I got my picture taken with the Pope at the private audience:
You can't tell, but I'm actually high-fiving the pope here. The hand that I'm high-fiving just obscures the view...
The Holy Father begins with a fundamental and necessary observation – human beings have dignity which is derived from our creation by our common Father in His image and likeness. It is precisely because of this dignity that the Vatican supports adult stem cell research, but not embryonic stem cell research which involves the destruction of a human being.
But since human beings are endowed with immortal souls and are created in the image and likeness of God, there are dimensions of human existence that lie beyond the limits of what the natural sciences are competent to determine. If these limits are transgressed, there is a serious risk that the unique dignity and inviolability of human life could be subordinated to purely utilitarian considerations. But if instead these limits are duly respected, science can make a truly remarkable contribution to promoting and safeguarding the dignity of man: indeed herein lies its true utility. Man, the agent of scientific research, will sometimes, in his biological nature, form the object of that research. Nevertheless, his transcendent dignity entitles him always to remain the ultimate beneficiary of scientific research and never to be reduced to its instrument.
The Pope then goes on to offer his support for adult stem cell research (not news by any means, but it seems from the media reporting that this is some sort of drastic change in church teaching).
In this sense, the potential benefits of adult stem cell research are very considerable, since it opens up possibilities for healing chronic degenerative illnesses by repairing damaged tissue and restoring its capacity for regeneration. The improvement that such therapies promise would constitute a significant step forward in medical science, bringing fresh hope to sufferers and their families alike. For this reason, the Church naturally offers her encouragement to those who are engaged in conducting and supporting research of this kind, always with the proviso that it be carried out with due regard for the integral good of the human person and the common good of society.
Note the two conditions necessary for ethical stem cell research: that it have due regard for the integral good of the human person AND the common good of society. If either requirement is not met, then it should not be pursued. He then goes on to focus on the first requirement, due regard for the human person:
This proviso is most important. The pragmatic mentality that so often influences decision-making in the world today is all too ready to sanction whatever means are available in order to attain the desired end, despite ample evidence of the disastrous consequences of such thinking. When the end in view is one so eminently desirable as the discovery of a cure for degenerative illnesses, it is tempting for scientists and policy-makers to brush aside ethical objections and to press ahead with whatever research seems to offer the prospect of a breakthrough. Those who advocate research on embryonic stem cells in the hope of achieving such a result make the grave mistake of denying the inalienable right to life of all human beings from the moment of conception to natural death.
The utilitarian approach to ethics so prevalent today is entirely incompatible with the dignity of the human person, especially with regards to stem cell research. And here comes the hinge of the whole talk…
The destruction of even one human life can never be justified in terms of the benefit that it might conceivably bring to another. Yet, in general, no such ethical problems arise when stem cells are taken from the tissues of an adult organism, from the blood of the umbilical cord at the moment of birth, or from fetuses who have died of natural causes.
…It follows that dialogue between science and ethics is of the greatest importance in order to ensure that medical advances are never made at unacceptable human cost. The Church contributes to this dialogue by helping to form consciences in accordance with right reason and in the light of revealed truth. In so doing she seeks, not to impede scientific progress, but on the contrary to guide it in a direction that is truly fruitful and beneficial to humanity.
The Pope then addresses a grave ethical consideration that must be addressed even in adult stem cell research – the just allocation of expensive treatments. At this point, stem cell treatments would be outrageously expensive and access to these treatments must be made available to all, not only the rich who can afford it. The pope points to the Catholic health care system as a possible mechanism to distribute these treatments to those who would otherwise be unable to afford them. This is an ethical consideration which was brought up by one of the invited speakers, Dr. Caplan, that should definitely be kept in mind as this type of research continues and moves into the market.
In drawing attention to the needs of the defenceless, the Church thinks not only of the unborn but also of those without easy access to expensive medical treatment. Illness is no respecter of persons, and justice demands that every effort be made to place the fruits of scientific research at the disposal of all who stand to benefit from them, irrespective of their means. In addition to purely ethical considerations, then, there are issues of a social, economic and political nature that need to be addressed in order to ensure that advances in medical science go hand in hand with just and equitable provision of health-care services. Here the Church is able to offer concrete assistance through her extensive health-care apostolate, active in so many countries across the globe and directed with particular solicitude to the needs of the world’s poor.
So there you have it, the meat of the address. It’s a good starting point for the rest of the conference as it gives some justification as to why the Church has decided to enter into the fray and actively support adult stem cell research. Rejecting utilitarian thinking, we must move forward seeking cures for debilitating diseases while respecting the dignity of all human beings.