If you are like most of the public, you are somewhat confused about all the debate on "stem cell research." What is a "stem cell"? Why would the Church be against research? Why is the whole matter such a controversy in the first place?
A "stem cell" is a cell which is capable of growing into any type of cell in the body. Such cells may be helpful in treating disease. The problem, however, is that in one method of obtaining these cells, human lives, in their earliest stages, are being destroyed in the process.
This is not a debate about whether or not we should do research to assist the perennial fight against disease. The Church does not oppose research. But the task of research, the efforts to cure disease, and the ability to manipulate nature has certain moral parameters. Consider some history.
The prosecution in the World War II War Crimes Trials pointed to a key source of the deterioration of ethics which resulted in the Nazi killing program. That book was "The Release of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value," by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche. Hoche was a doctor of medicine. He writes,
"A child was sick with a rare and scientifically interesting brain disease and was almost certain to die within 24 hours. If that child would die in the hospital, I would have the opportunity by autopsy to find out the reason for the sickness…It would have been easy to give the child an injection of morphine to hurry his death by a few hours. I did not because my personal desire for scientific research was not an important enough good to overcome the obligation of medical ethics. It would have been a different question, however, if to decide as mentioned in the present case would have resulted in the saving of many lives. The question would have had to be answered yes because of the higher good."
This philosophy, that we can kill to advance medical progress, led to numerous experiments on innocent people. In the portion of the war crime trials dealing with the medical experiments, the prosecution stated, "The defendants in this case are charged with murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science." Experiments mentioned in the official US Government publication summarizing the Medical Case include "High Altitude experiments," "Freezing experiments," and "Mustard gas experiments." In one example, the subject's legs had to be deliberately crippled to obtain the medical data.
Some say that the embryos destroyed in today's research aren't human. That simply contradicts scientific fact. The widely used medical textbook The Developing Human, Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th Edition, Moore, Persaud, Saunders, 1998, states at page 2 that "The intricate processes by which a baby develops from a single cell are miraculous .... This cell [the zygote] results from the union of an oocyte [egg] and sperm. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being ...." At page 18 this theme is repeated: "Human development begins at fertilization [emphasis in original] ...."
Ultimately, however, the debate here goes beyond the fate of the embryos themselves. It involves the very meaning of human life, and whether some humans may be destroyed for the sake of others.
And the world has gone down that painful road before.