(Shutterstock photo)

Recent medical developments, gene splicing and treating paralysis by means of embryonic stems cells, have been heralded by an uncritical public as great advances in reducing human suffering. In both cases, we have forgotten something important: an embryonic person has been sacrificed in the process. Fr. Tad Pacholcyzk, bioethicist from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, recently wrote an eloquent article about these expendable children. Perhaps the problem is not just that they are expendable, but invisible.

Even when presented with the information that treatment requires embryonic stem cells, far too many people fail to make the connection between that term and the reality of a person. The embryo is not merely expendable: he is not even recognized as present. The great wonder of medical advancement blinds us of the reality of the tiny person being sacrificed to make it possible.

In an Internet discussion, I remarked that, in the case of embryonic stem cell research, a human person had to die in the process. Even in that thread, populated largely by Christians, many of whom are Catholic, the response was swift and strong in defense of new advancements and in derision of my comment. It came down to this: 

This is not a human person being killed. Doctors put an egg and a sperm in a petri dish and let them multiply for a few days. The woman who gives the egg and the man who gives the sperm have willingly donated them so there is no problem with consent. Women have more eggs, and men produce more sperm, than ever become children and even fertilized eggs often do not survive to birth. Yes, those sperm and eggs have the potential to become humans; but overwhelmingly, the vast majority don't. You're telling me that a clump of cells—donated by willing participants—is more important than a young man whose life has been improved because he is no longer paralyzed? I don’t believe so.

It is important to recognize and speak out against these errors now, at the beginning of the research process. If we do not, we risk being in a situation similar to that of the MMR vaccine: having available, effective and accepted treatment that is morally objectionable but which will not be replaced with something more acceptable because the outcry is not sufficient to require investment of time and money to develop an alternative for what is seen as a relative minority of the public.

Could you argue effectively against this kind of admittedly emotional appeal? Could your children?  How many of us, should the time come when such a treatment is easy and effective, would be able to refuse it for ourselves or a loved one and say, “We follow Jesus. We cannot do this.” 

There are five key points to keep in mind when looking at and discussing the issue of stem cell research: 

Not all stem cell research is the same. Stem cells derived from persons who can consent and are not harmed by the process (adult stem cells) and stem cells from umbilical cord blood present no moral problems. Much of the successful research involving stem cells has been done using cells from these acceptable sources. That makes it practical and sensible to pursue research using these, rather than embryonic stem cells derived from a human embryo, which is destroyed in the process.

It is essential not to confuse eggs and sperm—which are not persons—with a fertilized egg and embryo, which the Church teaches must be treated as a person. Fertilized eggs and embryos constitute a new life, genetically distinct from either parent. That life is real, unique, precious and unrepeatable. That person, even when only a single cell, has inherent dignity, is worthy of protection, and is not just potential. He or she is present in the world and looks just as expected at that point in development.

The number of eggs and sperm we produce is irrelevant, as is the fact that some fertilized eggs and embryos do not go on to full development. Eggs and sperm have a particular purpose: reproduction. The natural failure of a fertilized egg to fully develop to the point of live birth is as different from purposeful destruction of embryos as natural death is from murder.

There are three people, not two, who must consent to the process of procuring embryonic stem cells: the egg donor, the sperm donor and the person created from the union of the egg and sperm. The person who is the embryo did not (and could not) consent to this procedure. Moreover, it is not possible for the parents to consent in this matter for him given that it ends in his destruction and provides him no benefit. It is crystal clear to medical researchers that persons must give consent to experiments performed upon them. Refusing to recognize the person who the embryo is permits research that would otherwise be impossible, and ­– so the argument goes – there is so much good that can come if the research is fruitful.

This brings up the final point:

The good to be done by embryonic stem cell research is irrelevant even if emotionally compelling because those cells result from an act that can never be condoned: intentional destruction of a vulnerable and innocent person. The initial act is gravely immoral – a sin. Any medical treatment that requires the intentional destruction of one person in order to cure another is quite simply wrong. The ends do not justify the means, especially when the means is the destruction of one life in favor of another.

The time to educate ourselves and to speak out to educate others about stem cell research is now. It is not just a topic to be left to the so-called experts in the field who do not see the moral issues involved. If public outrage is sufficient to force removal of monuments and statues, surely it can be sufficient to protect the most vulnerable among us from this kind of exploitation: the human person in the form of an embryo.


Barbara Golder had a 40-year career in medicine and law, including health care ethics. She is now the award-winning author of the ‘Lady Doc’ mystery series and serves as Director of Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She blogs at ladydoclawyer.com.