12:33:41 PM

The Pope and those life-saving stem cells

Pope Benedict’s arrival in the UK for his state visit to Britain has developed significant discussion on the Catholic belief, particularly around Church teaching on moral issues. The screening of Peter Tatchell’s documentary “The Trouble with the Pope” aimed various criticisms at the position taken by Rome on moral issues such as contraception, homosexuality, and the position of women in the Church today.

While there were several examples of distortion (and at times, glaring inaccuracies), one issue under the Tatchell spotlight caught my attention above others. In his critique of the Pope’s position on stem cell research, Tatchell pompously argued that “the moral imperative should be to support science that can help people and save lives” (and so say all of us, Pete). However, the insinuation that in his opposition to experiments using human embryos the Pope is callously blocking research that could lead to cures for terminally ill patients is as ridiculous as it is untrue.

Firstly, let us examine the reasons why Pope Benedict – in common with other faith leaders, and of course all post-war Popes before him – oppose experiments upon human embryos.

The view that life begins at the point of fertilisation is not a religious belief, but a scientific fact. There really is no other logical point at which we can say that a new human being has come into existence. As an editorial published in Nature magazine put it: “Your world was shaped in the first 24 hours after conception.  Where your head and feet would sprout, and which side would form your back and your belly, were being defined in the minutes and hours after sperm and egg united”.

Repeating the oft-quoted myth that the Catholic Church opposes stem cell research, Tatchell also neglected to point out that in 20 years of embryo research in the UK, not one cure or treatment has been discovered. In comparison, adult stem cell research – that is, research using early undifferentiated cells found in the human body – have already led to treatments in no fewer than 73 conditions. Of these, some of the most exciting results arising from adult stem cells include cures for blindness and sickle cell disease, as well as being used to overcome tissue rejection issues in the world’s first windpipe transplant in a child.

Similarly, Tatchell’s unique style of “research” did not stretch to investigating the scientific research which the Catholic Church is sponsoring to treat debilitating conditions. Here in the UK for example, the Institute of Clinical Neurosciences has recently been awarded a £25,000 grant to carry out the world’s first human trials of adult stem cell research for patients with Multiple Sclerosis – cutting-edge research by any definition. The grant, which was collected and distributed by the Catholic Church of England and Wales as part of its “Day for Life” fund, stands as a practical example of the Church both putting its money where its mouth is to treat debilitating disease and reduce human suffering.

In contrast, results from embryonic stem cells – which Tatchell and others hold out as the Great Hope for realizing such cures – have not only yielded little benefit in practical terms, but also indicate significant risks if implanted into humans.

Several studies carried out worldwide have concluded that stem cells extracted from human embryos have the effect of binding to existing cells in the body, resulting in a tumour formation rate of between 75-100%. In other words, if a patient was injected with embryonic stem cells then not only would there be little (if any) prospect of any improvement in his or her condition, but they would also run an extremely high risk of developing various forms of cancer. Embryonic stem cells could be a ticking time bomb.

As far as Tatchell’s criticism of Pope Benedict is concerned, his selectivity in identifying conditions but ignoring concrete treatments which serve as a rejoinder to his own position demonstrates either a profound misunderstanding of the science or – as has been suggested previously – a clumsy attempt at mudslinging. In contrast, the teachings of the Catholic Church are both logical, and can be supported in science.

Disagree with the Pope’s position by all means, but let’s not hear any more shrill accusations of condemning terminally ill patients to painful deaths. It is not accurate and it is not scientific.

Patrick Cusworth is a public affairs consultant, specialising in the science, research and technology sector.  He holds a Masters degree in Medical Law and Ethics and is a keen supporter of religious liberties.

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