Response of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family
to the Discussion Paper published by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research,
Human Stem Cell Research: Opportunities for Health and Ethical Perspectives
The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) was jointly founded by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus to promote respect for human life and dignity and the essential role of the family. Its Board of Directors is a multi-disciplinary group of bishops and lay men and women.
For the last three years COLF has hosted an annual seminar on biotechnology. Participants have included scientists, theologians, philosophers, lawyers, ethicists, bishops and other Catholic leaders. These annual meetings have encouraged a dialogue between faith and science, have fostered a better understanding of recent scientific developments and have helped to inform our ethical thinking. They have also brought us to a growing appreciation that faith and science have much in common touching as they do on the wonders and mysteries of creation and the ongoing journey of discovery. Science and faith can inform one another and each in their own way brings us closer to God.
In a spirit of collaboration and with deep respect for the enormous potential of science to help humanity, we accept the invitation of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to comment on its discussion paper, Human Stem Cell Research.
With regard to the use of human embryos as a source of stem cells, some believe that the human embryo is a being with full moral status from the moment of conception and an inalienable right to life. In this view, the use of a human embryo for research purposes is morally unacceptable. Others consider that an early human embryo is just a collection of cells, its moral status equivalent to that of any other cells in the body. A middle ground confers upon the human embryo a special moral status because of its potential to develop into a human being. In this view, the human embryo has neither the full moral status of a person nor an absolute right to life. Though it has a right to protection, this right is not absolute and can be overridden; for example, by the possibility of a major benefit to other humans and to society in general.
3. In our view, and it is supported by scientific and other professional opinion, a human being exists from conception.
In testimony before a Parliamentary Committee ten years ago Canadian Physicians for Life stated that:
The human foetus is a human being from conception, a fact that is no longer disputed in serious medical discussion. The genetic code of a unique new human individual first exists at conception, when a human egg and sperm unite to form a single fertilized ovum…. It is a scientific error to refer to the human embryo or foetus as a “potential human”; it is a human with potential. The same can be said of a child or young adult.
The Law Reform Commission of Canada in a working paper more than ten years ago affirmed that the product of conception is a human being.
True, the present Code has a curious provision in section 206 to the effect that a child doesn’t become a human being until it has proceeded completely from its mother’s body. This, far from being a proper definition of the term, runs counter to the general consensus that the product of human conception, in the womb or outside, is a human being.
4. In light of the above, there is no longer any question that the embryo is a human being. This is not only a well accepted scientific given but the very reason why the human embryo is so valuable to researchers.
The issue today is whether this most vulnerable human being will be treated and respected as a person. Put another way, the debate is no longer about the facts but about the decisions that will be made in light of these facts.
5. Catholic teaching, which holds that the embryo is a human being, maintains that the human being should be treated as and protected as a person. This requires that every human being, including the embryo, be treated with the utmost respect and dignity.
6. Given that the derivation of stem cells from human embryos, however they are created, destroys the embryo there really can be no middle ground as suggested in the discussion paper. To allow this sort of research knowing that the research subject, a human being, will be destroyed is surely a first. No amount of public benefit can ever justify the deliberate killing of a human being. The argument is particularly hollow when the same results could be achieved by alternative means such as the use of adult stem cells. No human being, including the embryo, should ever be used as a means to an end; no human being should ever be considered as “surplus” or “spare”. It is always wrong to destroy another human being even to help another. Both the means and the objective must be good; there is no middle ground.
7. In recommending that stem cells only be derived from “spare” embryos from fertility treatments, the discussion paper may be inadvertently encouraging the creation of “spare” embryos. In this way the recommendation against creating embryos for research purposes could be subverted.
Already the practice of producing more embryos than needed for implantation in the woman’s womb has resulted in the destruction of these embryos. About five years ago in England the world was stunned when 3300 “spare” embryos that were no longer needed or wanted were destroyed. What a paradox that embryos which were created to assist in reproduction were so carelessly discarded. How can we create life and then destroy it? Doing it in the name of healing doesn’t make it right. The proposed recommendation will only aggravate the link between the process of in vitro fertilization and the destruction of human embryos.
8. While the discussion paper speaks of the “special moral status” of the embryo and purports to give it effect by prohibiting the creation of embryos for research purposes or by cloning, this status lacks substance because other recommendations permit embryos produced by different means to be stripped of their cells and destroyed. The embryo is reduced from a subject to an object and is thus reduced from a human being with dignity to a source of organic material.
9. We have no objection to CIHR funding research on stem cells taken from non germ cell human fetal tissue resulting from spontaneous abortions; provided there is informed consent, privacy and confidentiality are respected, and there is no commercialization.
10. The recommendations ask that the stem cell research funded by CIHR be subject to full ethical review and that a national oversight body should be established to provide ethical review of all publicly and privately funded human embryo, fetal tissue, and embryonic stem cell and embryonic germ cell research.
The ethical issues identified in the discussion paper for consideration in the review are: the source of the embryos used for research, informed choice, privacy and confidentiality, and commercialization. These are all important questions but surely secondary to the ultimate ethical issue which the discussion paper has already decided, namely the freedom to do research at public expense on “spare” embryos from fertility treatments, research that will result in the destruction of the human embryo.
11. Many Canadians deeply believe that the human embryo has a full moral status that entitles it to be respected and protected at all stages of development. That being so, it does not seem appropriate for a publicly funded agency such as CIHR to promote and fund a research policy that can’t help but be particularly offensive to those who believe for scientific, religious, moral or social reasons that it involves the taking of human life. This is more than disagreement about the approach to a particular issue; it is disagreement at the level of principle.
1. The discussion paper identifies the rich potential of embryonic stem cells in treating degenerative and long-term illnesses. It also points out the promising research on the use of adult stem cells, noting that adult stem cells have been recently found to have surprising plasticity – for instance, stem cells from bone marrow may give rise not only to blood cells but also to muscle, liver and neuron–like cells. Neural stem cells can give rise to blood and other cell types.
2. We suggest that CIRH concentrate on funding research on adult stem cells because it would not involve the destruction of human life. This would be a way forward, which would facilitate scientific progress while respecting human dignity.
In closing, we again thank CIHR for involving the public in the development of funding guidelines for human stem cell research. It is an extremely important task you have and endlessly fascinating because it involves the nature and mystery of human life and the meaning that we attach to it. We hope that we have been constructive and look forward to receiving a copy of your final report.
May 23, 2001