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.
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