Is the Catholic Church against all forms of stem cell research?

The answer is No. The Catholic Church is only against some forms of Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) that entail the destruction of human embryos. Stem cells are cells that develop very early in the human embryo after fertilization. Stem cells “have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In addition, in many tissues they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing essentially without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell” (National Institute of Health, Stem Cell Basics, 2015). Proponents of ESCR believe it has the potential of being a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues that could treat plethora of diseases such as Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, burns, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and many more. They argue that since ESCR hold these “great” potentials, it is justified to experiment on embryonic stem cells retrieved by any means available (induce abortion of early embryos to retrieve their stem cells, produce/create embryos in vitro for the sole purpose of research, use “leftover” embryos from in vitro fertilization (IVF) and so on. The end in this context justifies the means. On the contrary, the moral objection to some forms of ESCR stems from the fact that stem cells harvested from living 3-5 days old embryos (blastocysts) will ultimately result in the destruction of a young human being. This objection against ESCR does not imply opposition to stem cell research generally. Most types of stem cell research (especially adult stem cell research) and morally acceptable forms of ESCR are encouraged. Stem cells can be derived from these morally acceptable sources: Embryonic Germ Cells (from miscarriages or spontaneous abortions and not elective abortions), Umbilical Cord Stem Cells, Placenta-derived Stem Cells, Post-Natally Derived (Adult) Stem cells, De-Differentiation Strategies (provided it doesn’t go so far as to make a human embryo), and Reprogramming Strategies (as long it generates a distinctly non-embryonic entity).

The Church’s objection to some forms of stem cell research is expressed in Donum Vitae no. 4: “Medical research must refrain from operations on live embryos, unless there is a moral certainty of not causing harm to the life or integrity of the unborn child and the mother, and on condition that the parents have givers their free and informed consent to the procedure. It follows that all research, even when limited to the simple observation of the embryo, would become illicit were it to involve risk to the embryo’s physical integrity or life by reason of the methods used or the effects induced. As regards experimentation, and presupposing the general distinction between experimentation for purposes which are not directly therapeutic and experimentation which is clearly therapeutic for the subject himself, in the case in point one must also distinguish between experimentation carried out on embryos which are still alive and experimentation carried out on embryos which are dead. If the embryos are living, whether viable or not, they must be respected just like any other human person; experimentation on embryos which is not directly therapeutic is illicit. (29) No objective, even though noble in itself, such as a foreseeable advantage to science, to other human beings or to society, can in any way justify experimentation on living human embryos or fetuses, whether viable or not, either inside or outside the mother’s womb” (Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, 1987).