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Why Does the Catholic Church Oppose Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

A reader recently asked the following fantastic question about the Catholic Church teaching on embryonic stem cell research:

While my views in connection with research are opposed to those of the Pope and the Catholic church, I am very open to dialogue.  Simply for the sake of clarity (and not in any way seeking to criticise the church), please would you tell me the scriptural basis for the Vatican’s opposition to research involving fertilised human ova?  I am very familiar with how the ideas of Aristotle were incorporated into church doctrine under Aquinas, but not at all clear what the scriptural basis is or how opposition to research aimed at the alleviation of human suffering, and which cannot harm a human being (blastocysts are well short of a having a nervous system with which to suffer), squares with less abstruse requirements of the Christian life.

I am sure that many readers would welcome the opportunity for a clear elaboration.  Obviously, people will have a range of legitimate views, but it would be wonderful to highlight shared ground.

I am no theologian, but I will try my best to relate the foundations of the what the Church says about embryonic stem cell research.  The Catholic Church teaching on the beginnings of life are based on what embryology tells us about what results from fertilization:

“Although human life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.”
(O’Rahilly, Ronan and Müller, Fabiola. Human Embryology and Teratology, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996, p. 8 )

So the Catholic Church acknowledges that a new human organism is created at fertilization which the Church also calls conception. (In recent years, practitioners of in vitro fertilization [IVF] have redefined conception as the implantation of an embryo in the uterus.  This allows them to say that prior to implantation, an embryo has yet to be conceived.  This implies that a new human organism begins at implantation instead of fertilization which is scientifically incorrect.  The Catholic Church uses conception in its traditional usage, synonymous with fertilization.)

Even a child old enough to know about human reproduction realizes that his (or her) life as a human being began the moment his (or her) father’s sperm penetrated his (or her) mother’s egg.  A secular children’s book on the biology of human reproduction from my local library is very clear that life begins at conception as well.  It reads:

“But nine months before, when you first began, you were just one little cell, even smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. Half of this cell came from your mother’s body, and the other half came from your father’s body.”

Essentially, the Catholic Church says that human life begins at conception not in spite of science but because of it.

So then why is the beginnings of human life such a hotly debated issue?  I believe it is because the debate about when life begins is actually focused on the wrong question or rather questions.  It is not a matter biologically of when a new human organism begins.  That is an established fact.  The real debate is about whether or not human life has value, whether or not an embryo or fetus has moral worth simply because he (or she) is human and whether or not every human life deserves respect and protection.  When people say that life does not begin at conception I think what they are really saying is that they do not believe that embryonic life has value and that it does not deserve to be protected.

The Catholic Church teaches that the new human life that begins at conception has dignity and worth simply because it is human.  Catholics know that human life is present from the moment of fertilization.  We also know that all human life is intrinsically valuable.  How do Catholics know that?  Among the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses was the instruction not to kill.  This prohibition from the taking of innocent human life, tells us that God Himself finds every human life valuable.  Valuable enough to expressly tell us that purposely ending innocent human life is a terrible sin.

Even in a increasingly secular world, society understands that the taking of an innocent life is a moral trespass that cannot be allowed.  Hence the prohibition of homicide in secular law.  The basis of this understanding is the reality that human life does indeed have value simply because it is human.

There are others who want to qualify and restrict which human lives are considered valuable because of a particular agenda.  The Catholic Church does not make any qualifications.  Irregardless of point of development, Catholics acknowledge the inherent dignity in every human organism  From the moment an embryo is formed to his (or her) natural death, the Church upholds the sanctity of all human life.  From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2270- Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

It often argued that while an embryo is a human organism, he (or she) is not a “person” and therefore does not have any moral worth.  The Catholic Church rejects this argument because there is no point, other than conception, in human development where a human person suddenly appears.  To designate any other point of development as the point where a human person emerges is simply arbitrary.  Lee M. Silver, professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, does not believe an embryo is a person, but he wrote in his book Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family:

“Once fertilization is complete, there are no isolated moments along the way where you can point at an embryo or fetus and say that it is substantially different from the way it was a few minutes, or even hours earlier.”

Every one of us is a continuous organism from the moment we are conceived to the day that we die.  DNA is the gold standard for identification in every court of law.  We are personally identifiable as a unique human organism by our DNA, from the moment of conception throughout our lives.  It is illogical that we be treated as persons only for a part of that continuous process.

The Catholic Church is also very clear on the treatment of the human embryo.  Since the human embryo is human life and has value simple because he (or she) is human any technology that does not respect the integrity and dignity of a human embryo is unethical.  From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2274-  Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.

Because the Church teaches that every human life, regardless of its stage of development and has dignity and worth and should be cared for and healed as any other person, we Catholics hold that research that destroys or harms embryos is unethical.  That research is unethical even if the proposed end is good.  So embryonic stem cell research is wrong because it destroys human embryos to harvest cells.  We cannot sacrifice one valuable human life to treat another.  A Jewish Rabbi said it better than I could:

“People who oppose embryonic stem-cell research want a cure as much as you want a cure, but they do not believe that you can pick healthy fruit from a poisoned tree.” — Rabbi Marc Gellman, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Torah


Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for six years and is a regular on Catholic radio.