Human embryonic stem cell research:
A Catholic response to President Bush's decision

By Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
Sacred Heart Major Seminary
2701 Chicago Blvd.
Detroit, MI 48206

On August 9, 2001, President Bush announced that he would provide federal funding for research on stem cells obtained from human embryos. He made it clear, though, that this funding would be limited to research only on those stem lines "where the life and death decision has already been made." Various pro-life leaders and organizations have praised the President's policy, yet many Catholic bishops, theologians and organizations have raised moral objections. Why are Catholic leaders critical of Mr. Bush's decision?

It should first be noted that various Catholic bishops and theologians have praised the President for certain aspects of his decision. Cardinal Law of Boston, for example, observes that Mr. Bush "has elevated the public debate" on stem cell research by affirming "the inherent value of human embryonic life." Dr. John Haas, President of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, has described Bush's prohibition of federal funding of the on-going destruction of human embryos as "welcome news." Bishop Sean O'Malley of Fall River, MA has likewise commended President Bush for his condemnation of human cloning and his strong support for research on stem cells "derived from adults, umbilical cords and placentas" (see National Catholic Bioethics Center. However, even the Catholic bishops and theologians who have praised the President for certain parts of his decision qualify their praise with "serious ethical questions," "disappointment" and the recognition of "an unfortunate inconsistency" in moral reasoning.

Some bishops and Catholic groups have been even more severe. Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called Mr. Bush's decision "morally unacceptable" (see "Catholic Bishops Criticize Bush Policy on Embryo Research"). American Life League raised the possibility that President Bush and his advisors engaged in a "stall tactic" that enabled the biotech industry "to destroy additional embryonic children" in order to raise the existing stem cell lines from 12 to 60 (see "Analysis of George W. Bush's embryonic stem cell decision") The ALL likewise noted ambiguous language in President Bush's address. For example, he referred to the human embryo's "potential for life" and its "unique genetic potential of an individual human being." As is well known, the Catholic Church does not believe that the human embryo has only "potential" for life or humanity but is already a unique human individual who "is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception"(Donum Vitae, I,1 and Evangelium Vitae, 60).

The question, though, remains: if the federal funding is going to be limited to research on those existing stem cells "where the life and death decision has already been made," why should Catholics have moral objections?

I believe objections to President Bush's decision can be subsumed under three interconnected moral categories: 1) scandal; 2) indirect or negative cooperation with intrinsic evil; and 3) indirect encouragement of future acts of evil.

  1. The reality of scandal is suggested in what Bishop Fiorenza has observed: "The federal government, for the first time in history, will support research that relies on the destruction of some defenseless human beings for the possible benefit of others" (see "Catholic Bishops Criticize Bush Policy on Embryo Research") If the stem cells could be taken from human embryos without destroying them, there would be no problem. However, under present conditions the stem cells can only be obtained by the willful destruction of human life.

    Supporters of Bush's decision claim that research on the existing stem cell lines does not imply approval of the way the stem cells were obtained. In fact, they maintain, the President's prohibition of federal funds for research involving any future destruction of human embryos demonstrates his disapproval of this evil. Others note that it is one thing to murder a man, but it is an entirely different matter to use the body parts of the murdered man for some benefit.

    Such observations do not mitigate the scandal involved in granting federal funding for research on stem cells obtained by the willful destruction of innocent human lives. While it might be moral to use the organs of a murdered man for some beneficial purpose, the parallel here would be the federal funding of a human anatomy lab that received its cadavers from those who murdered people precisely to deliver their corpses to the lab for research.

    For similar reasons, the comparison of research on stem cells derived from destroyed human embryos with the use of vaccines cultured from fetal tissue obtained from induced abortions is not valid. The connection between the vaccines and the induced abortions is more remote since the vaccines can be developed by means other than induced abortions (see "Fact sheet: Embryonic stem cell research and vaccines using fetal tissue"). Beyond this, though, the direct parallel would be the federal funding of research on vaccines using fetal tissue obtained from abortions specifically performed with the intent of obtaining tissue for research.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as "an attitude or a behavior which leads another to do evil" (no. 2284). When the federal government funds research that tries to bring good out of what was obtained by an evil means, others might be led to commit a similar evil. It would be like a Catholic university accepting a generous donation from a known abortionist. The attempt to bring good fruit out of a poisoned tree always runs the risk of scandal. This is why the Nuremberg Code denounced the scientific use of Nazi experimentation on human subjects.

  2. Related to the issue of scandal is that of cooperation with evil. Some defenders of the Bush decision argue that it is impossible to engage in formal or even material cooperation with evil acts committed in the past. As a general principle this is true, but the Bush plan will involve material cooperation with on-going research that seems scandalous because of its derivative connection with prior evil.

    The Bush decision also involves indirect or negative cooperation with intrinsic evil. In his classic text, Moral Theology (2nd ed. trans. Urban Adelman, Westminster, Md.: The Newman Bookshop, 1946), Father Heribert Jone maintains that "negative cooperation" with evil occurs when someone in a position of authority fails to resist an injustice or denounce an evil-doer (cf. no. 355). The Instruction, Donum Vitae, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1987 speaks of the "duty to condemn the particular gravity of the voluntary destruction of human embryos obtained 'in vitro' for the sole purpose of research" (I, 5). In his address, President Bush never condemned privately funded research that involves the voluntary destruction of human embryos. Moreover, his decision to provide federal funding for research on stem cells derived from such evil can be understood as a form of indirect or negative cooperation. Pledging money for research on what was obtained by the intrinsic evil of destroying human embryos hardly seems to be an adequate denunciation of such evil.

  3. The strongest argument against President Bush's decision might be its indirect encouragement of future acts of evil. The immediate impact of the President's decision will be the weakening of existing laws that prohibit research based on the destruction of human embryos. Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, has noted that an appropriations rider (called the Dickey amendment) has been passed by Congress every year since 1995 (see "Hearing on Stem Cell Research"). This provision prohibits funding for research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed outside the womb. There are also nine states with laws forbidding research involving the destruction of human embryos. In spite of these laws, the National Institutes for Health (NIH) in August of 2000 issued guidelines on how researchers could obtain and destroy human embryos for possible federally funded stem cell research (see "The NIH Proposal for Stem Cell Research Is a Crime").

    While the Bush decision does not provide federal funds for the on-going destruction of human embryos, it does weaken existing laws that seek to prohibit such destruction. Once the precedent is set for funding research on stem cells "where the life and death decision has already been made," researchers will be encouraged to create further stem cell lines by embryonic destruction. After all, the President's policy allows, in principle, the use of such stem lines as long as "the life and death decision has already been made." Already there are scientists arguing that the 60-64 stem lines identified by Mr. Bush will prove inadequate for research and that at least one third of these stem cell colonies are too young or fragile to be useful (see "Third of 64 stem cell lines may be unusable," Detroit News, Aug. 28, 2001, p. 4A). We have good reason to fear that scientists and politicians will increase the pressure to expand federal funding for additional stem cell lines obtained from further embryonic destruction.

Some Catholics try to defend President Bush's decision in light of the concrete conditions of the political arena. They argue that a decision to prohibit any federal funding of this stem cell research would galvanize the opposition to pass legislation allowing for more aggressive funding of research involving the on-going destruction of human embryos.

This reasoning, though, fails to acknowledge that President Bush was under no obligation to provide funding for this research at all. Moreover, as explained above, his decision will most likely increase rather than decrease demands for additional federal funding. As a matter of prudence, the federal government should only fund research that has a proven record of success in the private sector. While adult stem cells have helped patients with stroke, anemia and various forms of cancer, no human patients have ever benefited from embryonic stem cells. Dr. Bert Voglestein, Professor of Oncology and Pathology at Johns Hopkins University, has described all claims of therapeutic benefit from embryonic stem cells as "conjectural" (see "Current Clinical Use of Adult Stem Cells to Help Human Patients"). Dr. David Prentice, Professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University, has observed that embryonic stem cells "have never helped a single human patient...They also have a poor record in animal research" (see editorial by Dr. Prentice in Detroit News, August 10, 2001, p. 11A). Why should President Bush provide federal funds for morally questionable research based on "conjectural" benefits?

Certainly, there are some elements of Mr. Bush's decision that can be appreciated by Catholics. However, the convergence of moral questions related to scandal, cooperation with evil and the indirect encouragement of further evil explains why the President's decision is morally objectionable from a Catholic perspective. We should pray for Mr. Bush and his advisors, and we should pray in a special way for Catholic theologians and politicians whose support for in vitro fertilization and abortion has helped to create the culture of death in which we find ourselves today.


©1999 American Bioethics Advisory Commission
A division of American Life League, Inc.