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Pennsylvania Bishops Speak Out on Stem Cell Research

8/21/2005 - 5:30 AM PST

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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON STEM CELL RESEARCH

A Statement of The Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania

God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end; no one can under any circumstance claim the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.

(Catechism of the Catholic Church 2258)

Stem Cell Research

Medical science today holds out the promise of cures to diseases and medical advances far beyond anything imagined, even a generation ago. Much of what we hear, particularly in media accounts of this type of "medical miracle," has to do with a remarkable technology called stem cell research. This new medical research industry currently treats numerous illnesses and injuries and offers hope for more cures using adult stem cells.

We rejoice with these advances in medical science and the promise of relief to human suffering. At the same time, we have an obligation to ensure that medical capabilities do not progress so rapidly that they lack an ethical and moral foundation. Whatever is accomplished, we must be sure that it is not just what we are able to do but what we should do. There is a definite and necessary moral context for medical development as well as an ethical content to decisions involving stem cell research. It is this moral dimension of medical science that we call to your attention.

As the Bishops of Pennsylvania, we have a responsibility to help people make an informed moral judgment about one of the most important issues that we, as a people, face today. We must examine carefully the facts to determine what exactly is at issue and why the moral prohibition against the use of evil means to achieve a good end is applicable.

What is a stem cell?

A stem cell is an unspecialized cell. Stem cells have the potential to develop into a full range of tissues that constitute the human body. This makes them so attractive to researchers. The science of cell therapy concentrates on ways to replace, repair or enhance the biological function of damaged tissues or organs in the body.

What are embryonic stem cells?

At the very beginning of human life, the sperm and egg come together to form an embryo. After that embryo has grown for about 5-7 days, it contains embryonic stem cells which can be extracted. In this procedure, the embryo is killed. Similar embryonic-type stem cells can also be obtained from aborted fetuses. The extracted cells are then cultivated in a laboratory, replicating over and over again.

What are adult stem cells and from where do they come?

Fortunately, embryos are not the only source of stem cells. Adult stem cells are found in the individual at any time after birth. There are a number of ethical sources of stem cells that hold out realistic hope for cures and treatments of diseases. Stem cells from adult tissues, which are committed to differentiating into a limited number of cell types such as liver, brain or blood, are called adult stem cells. These too have the capability of developing into specific tissues. Adult-type stem cells can also be derived from various pregnancy-related sources such as umbilical cords, placentas and amniotic fluid. Some scientists today assert that not only are adult stem cells more readily available but they are also more effective in treating diseases.

Which of the types of stem cells are medically most successful?

Stem cells derived from placental or umbilical cord blood have proven to be remarkably effective, similar to other adult stem cells. Originally it was theorized that stem cells from these various sources would be ineffective because they are limited in their ability to become various types of cells. However, alternative sources of stem cells have been successfully differentiated into needed tissue and are already effective in healing human illnesses. More than 50 diseases have already been treated successfully in humans using adult and umbilical cord stem cells.

What does the Church teach about adult stem cell research?

The Church does not oppose all stem cell research. In fact, the Church encourages and supports medical development and technological advancement. Adult stem cells are a solution. These cells exist in our bodies and provide a natural repair mechanism for many tissues of our bodies. There are methods available for obtaining human stem cells from adults. Furthermore, many therapies in humans have been successfully developed using adult stem cells. These include treatments for leukemia, juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injury, immune deficiency and corneal damage. It is important to note that no therapies in humans have ever been successfully carried out using embryonic stem cells.

Why is the extraction of embryonic stem cells ...

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