Tag Archives: Vatican

Vatican Stem Cell Conference – Beginning at the End

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.


Vatican ponies up for adult stem cell research

In May 2010 (yeah I know, I lag behind a little),  New York based adult stem cell company Neostem announced a ground-breaking collaboration with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.   From the press release:

NeoStem’s Stem for Life Foundation, formed to create awareness about the promise of adult stem cells to treat disease, and the Pontifical Council’s Foundation, called STOQ International (Science Theology and the Ontological Quest), will work on a variety of collaborative activities with the goal of advancing scientific research on adult stem cells, exploring their clinical application in the field of regenerative medicine and the cultural relevance of such a fundamental shift in medical treatment options, particularly with regard to the impact on theological and ethical issues.

The Pontifical council has thrown it’s weight behind the initiative with a hefty $1 million donation to the Stem for Life Foundation.  This is not, contrary to some rumors that have been spread around recently, a purchase of stock in the company for profit.  The money will go toward funding educational programs that promote the use of adult stem cell therapies which, unlike embryonic stem cell therapies, have been used clinically for years in hundreds of patients to treat debilitating diseases.

As part of the collaboration, NeoStem and the Pontifical Council will pursue the development of educational programs, publications and academic courses with an interdisciplinary approach for theological and philosophical faculties, including those of bioethics, around the world.

As described in a recent LA Times article, Neostem has a strong interest in the moral and ethical implications of stem cell research; this, among other reasons, attracted the attention of the Pontifical Council:

The partnership is rare, perhaps unprecedented. “It is unusual, ” said Father Tomasz Trafny, the Vatican’s point man on the deal. “Never in history [have] we entered into such [a] collaboration.”

Trafny, a Polish-born priest who heads a science and theology unit within the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the church decided to collaborate with NeoStem for two reasons.

“First, they have a strong interest in … searching for the cultural impact of their own work, which is very unusual,” he said. “Many companies will look at the profit and only at the profit.

“And the second, of course, is that they share the same moral, ethical sensitivity…. Because of that ethical position, we entered into this unique collaboration.”

Perhaps the most exciting program to develop from the collaboration is a three day conference being held November 9-11, 2011 in the Vatican.  The mission of the conference is “To foster the highest levels of scientific research on Adult Stem Cells and to explore the cultural, ethical and human implications of their use.”  It is great to see the Church stepping up to the challenges of modern science and offering a voice of conscience and morality to help guide the discussion!

The conference is by invite only and yours truly has been given the honor of being one of those invited to attend.  In just two short weeks, I’ll be flying to Rome to take part.  I’ll be blogging throughout in an effort to bring the  conference to as many as possible, so if you’re interested in getting updates, subscribe!  I’m also doing some last minute fundraising in order to help pay for travel expenses involved with the conference, so if you’re feeling generous you can send me an email at jcreneau [at] gmail(dot)com.