Critic of Catholic Church’s Position on Stem Cell Research Misses….Everything

By Dave Andrusko

Dr. Art Caplan

Last week I wrote about the Mainstream Press’s surprise that a major international conference would be taking place at the Vatican where the emphasis would be on adult stem cells—how such stem cells are already helping patients all over the world and why for a host of reasons future breakthroughs would likely be found there, not in harvesting stem cells from human embryos (ESCRs).

I explained how the impression had been left that the reader ought to be surprised that the Catholic Church would be constructively engaged—when in truth the Catholic Church has long been supportive of research using the ethically unobjectionable adult stem cells (see here).

University of Pennsylvania Bioethicist Art Caplan, who writes for MSNBC.com, attended the conference and wrote a piece that appeared yesterday. Let’s talk about what was useful (little) and what was not (lots).

Caplan does make an unassailable point that nobody prior to, during, or after the conference would disagree with. The research around adult stem cells ought not to be hyped, a warning about ESCRs that has been and continues to be studiously ignored (a point Caplan manages to avoid making in his column). Likewise, due diligence ought to be exercised in giving out the money from a five-year initiative to fund adult stem cell research.

The overarching point of Caplan’s column is that what do “cardinals in red caps and men in collars trained in canon law and biblical study” know about “find[ing] cures for damaged hearts, severed spinal cords, arthritic knees, lupus, peripheral artery disease and diabetes?”  The condescension was so thick–the Vatican is hopelessly far behind the science–it practically oozed.

But  beyond Caplan’s conclusion that the Catholic Church (the “pious and devout” who are “scientifically rather undistinguished”) is in way over  its head, where else does he go off base?

·         “Can religion and science ever get along? Specifically, can stem cell research proceed with the blessing of religion?  In an unprecedented and truly startling move, the Catholic Church has answered yes.”

Really? This is the first example of religion—in this case the Catholic Church—“get[ting] along with science”?  Please. And there is, of course, nothing “unprecedented and truly startling” about the Vatican’s support for stem cell research—ADULT stem cell research.

·         “Many researchers pursuing embryonic and cloned stem cell research will pay no attention to the church’s message.”

No kidding. Does anyone think the Catholic Church is so naïve as to believe that those who are invested—financially and ideologically—in ESCR will suddenly hop off that bandwagon?

Put these first two points together and ask this: if the measuring rod is results, what do we know? That there remains no direct evidence yet (hyped or otherwise) of human clinical benefit from embryonic stem cells while  non-embryonic stem cells have been used to save many thousands of lives and improve heart function, help restore vision, arrest the progress of debilitating diseases, etc. in clinical trials.

More Caplan:

·         “The meeting I went to was sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Culture, one of a number of advisory groups that meet regularly inside the Vatican.  There, church leaders sought to soften a tough ethical spot: intractable opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells that could hold cures for a long list of awful diseases. The point of the meeting was to crack the dilemma by making it clear to the world that the Vatican is aware of the need to find solutions.”

But (see above) the Catholic Church is not some Johnny Come Lately to stem cell research, nor has it been tardy in advancing ethically sound alternatives.

To take just one example, in 2006 the Pontifical Academy for Life co-sponsored a stem cell conference at the Vatican. Among the presenters was at the time a little-known (at least to Americans) Japanese scientist,  Shinya Yamanaka. Dr Yamanaka (who we’ve written about many times) had found a way to turn ordinary mouse cells into cells very much like embryonic stem cells. He thought he could do the same with human cells. 

Dr. Yamanaka was soon to make international front-page headlines with his discovery of what are now called “induced pluripotent stem cells,” one of the fastest-growing areas of stem cell research. Many predict he will win a Nobel Prize for his path-breaking work.

Last point from Caplan:

“Politicians representing nations with large numbers of Catholic voters are likely to press harder for funding for adult stem cell work.”

Consider: Even the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, established with a $3 billion bond issue by the state’s voters some years ago to fund mainly embryonic stem cell research, is now feeling the pressure to show real results from its investment – and accordingly is setting aside its own charter and funding chiefly non-embryonic stem cell research these days. There is already “pressure,” not from “nations with large numbers of Catholic voters,” but from taxpayers asking what have we to show for $3 billion dollars?

Congratulations to the Catholic Church for using an international conference to further publicize its support for non-embryonic stem cell research.

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