A Roman Catholic Perspective

Monsignor Peter R. Beaulieu, M.A., S.T.L.

A project to assist medical professionals, patients and families in understanding Roman Catholic teaching on the quality of life and other moral issues. This is a work in progress.  Please check periodically for updates.



In 1987, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Donum vitae—Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origins which states that “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (Donum vitae, I, par.5). This statement stipulates that conception is the moment at which human life begins and that the embryo has rights as a person from that point on. Moreover, the traditional moral principle that has governed Western ethics almost from its inception is that an evil means can never justify a good end or even a greater good. These fundamental principles are acutely applicable in the area of embryonic stem cell research.

United State Conference of Catholic Bishops

Richard Doerflinger, the Associate Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has been at the forefront in both examining and elucidating the Catholic position on the issue of stem cell research, as well as the legitimacy of using public funds in such a morally contentious matter. This year, at the spring meeting of the USCCB, the US hierarchy approved their first official statement, as a body, on that evolving technology. There are at least available means for obtaining stem cells, one is through the use of so-called spare embryos which were intended to be used for in vitro fertilization (IVF) and the other source is stem cells from adult tissues and umbilical cord blood.

Induced Pluripotent Cells—iPS


This year, researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Cancer Center and Center for Regenerative Medicine took a major step forward in the ability to reprogram adult stem cells back to an embryonic-like state with the desired properties, but to do so without creating or destroying human embryos. The breakthrough deals with finally understanding the steps necessary to achieve reprogramming adult cells. Prior to this discovery, research scientists had to use cancer-causing genes or retroviruses (these can activate cancer genes) to trigger the process and, thus, prevented any human use of such reprogrammed cells. The researchers viral system is capable of controlling the behavior of the four genes typically introduced into stem cells in order to turn back the developmental clock.

Related Issue—Cloning

The human body has two different kinds of cells: somatic (or body) cells and germ line (or reproductive) cells. Both types of cells are diploid (containing 46 chromosomes) until maturity and, thus, both somatic and germ line cells are capable of being cloned by nuclear transfer. There are, then, two types of nuclear transfer cloning techniques: somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) and germ line cell nuclear transfer (GLCNT). The process of SCNT requires the removal of the nucleus of a somatic cell—this contains the organism’s DNA. At the same time, the nucleus of an ovum (or egg cell) is removed, into which the somatic cell’s nucleus is, then, inserted. The somatic cell nucleus is reprogrammed by the host and, so, the re-enucleated egg, when stimulated, begins to divide. This procedure is useful in stem cell research because the resultant cells would be identical to the donor cell’s organism. There are currently no stem cell lines from SNCT—a family of constantly-dividing cells from single parent. There are labs using this procedure in stem cell research—the Stem Cell Institute at Harvard, UC San Francisco, and possibly Advance Cell Technology (ACT)—employing the technique of SCNT to produce embryonic stem cells. Proponents of this type of research label this therapeutic cloning. However, this same technique used to clone animals is, at least theoretically, capable of cloning humans; thus, the benign title reproductive cloning. Somatic cells are body cells, whereas germ line cells are the reproductive cells in the body. Germ line cell nuclear transfer (GLCNT) uses similar techniques to SCNT. Like somatic cells, germ (or reproductive) cells are diploid. The nucleus (includes the DNA) of the donor and recipient cell is removed and the donor’s nucleus is transferred to an enucleated oocyte (or egg) which is stimulated electronically or chemically causing the reprogramming of the DNA in the cell. The result is that this host cell, containing the nucleus of a donor cell, is a new human embryo.

Moral Issues at Stake

Regardless of how an embryo has been created, whether through natural fertilization in utero, cloning, or IVF, reason and basic biological knowledge state that the outcome is clearly a unique, human life. Without outside intervention or the failure to act, cell development will inevitably result in a birth or miscarriage. Life must have respect from its origins and the human embryo should never be treated merely as a means. Claiming that the prospect of doing a great good—healing disease and generating organs that would not face antibody rejection—does not justify the use of microscopic life as the means. This violates one of the fundamental principles of morality—the end never justifies the means. For more information see Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, www.stemcellresearch.org


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