The Use of Human "Biological Material" of Illicit Origin:
A Commentary On Dignitas Personae, Part Three, nn 34 - 35

John M. Haas, Ph.D., S.T.L. and Edward J. Furton, Ph.D.

May Catholics use a life-saving product that derives from human embryonic stem cell research? The answer may well be different depending on whether one is a researcher or a patient.

Dignitas personae addresses the question initially in paragraph 32:

“The use of embryonic stem cells or differentiated cells derived from them---even when these are provided by other researchers through the destruction of embryos or when such cells are commercially available---presents serious problems from the standpoint of cooperation in evil and scandal.”

Of course, there are no life-saving products that derive from embryonic stem cells. Despite years of hype, the most promising developments in this field have been made using adult stem cells, including the newly discovered induced pluripotent stem cells, which have most of the same properties as the embryonic, but do not involve the destruction of embryos.  An induced pluripotent stem cell is developed from a fully developed human body cell. Through various complex manipulations, it is reprogrammed and reverts to an earlier stage of development.

Dignitas personae returns to the question in paragraphs 34 and 35, where the “criterion of independence” is roundly critiqued. Those who claim that the use of embryonic stem cells and their derivatives is permissible so long as someone else destroys the embryo face a contradiction. They cannot pretend to be free of moral responsibility when others commit injustices from which their own research benefits.

During the Clinton Administration there was an attempt to get around the ban on federal funding of destructive embryonic stem cell research. Individuals in his administration proposed making arrangements with scientists in the private sector who would kill the embryos making the cells obtained through this act available to researchers using federal funds. They appealed to a “criterion of independence”. That might have met the letter of federal laws but it does not pass the demands of the moral law since it would make those doing research with the federal funds morally complicit in the destruction of human embryos.

Some contend that this is too high a standard, especially for Catholic researchers of good conscience, but the Vatican replies that “the duty to avoid cooperation in evil and scandal relates to their ordinary professional activities.” Dignitas personae therefore concludes that “there is a duty to refuse to use such ‘biological material’ even there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who” kill the embryo.

The problem is only heightened when public law permits and even encourages the destruction of embryonic human life. The written law of the state must follow the unwritten law that God has inscribed into human nature if it is to be a true law that binds us in conscience.

Researchers, it seems clear, are bound not to work with embryonic stem cells, regardless of the good that might result, and despite the distance between the original act of destruction and present use. But does the same restriction apply to those who might benefit from any future life-saving discoveries that may derive from embryonic stem cell lines?

Here the Vatican does not give a definitive answer, though one is perhaps suggested. The Vatican has stated that that parents may make use of certain vaccines that have a distant origin in tissues derived from elective abortions to immunize their children when no other alternative is currently available. This is permissible (when done under protest) in view of the great goods of life and human health. This same reasoning may apply more broadly to those in the health care profession who need to be protected against the transmission of disease while engaged in their important work. Indeed, there are grounds for supposing that when the goods of health and life are at risk, the use of these products on a temporary basis (until such time as alternatives are available) is generally permissible for anyone in need of them.

This line of reasoning may apply to therapeutic products that result from embryonic stem cell research, though there are some important differences between the two cases. For example, the vaccine case differs from that of research with human embryonic stem cells since there are principally only two cell lines used for vaccine production and the fetuses were killed for reasons entirely unrelated to the production of vaccines. On the other hand, there is the ongoing destruction of human embryos for purposes of research involving human embryonic stem cell research.  

Would a similar conclusion follow concerning any life-saving treatment that may eventually derive from embryonic stem cells? Though the general outlines of an answer are suggested, there is no definitive response. 

One thing is clear, however. Being pro-life in a bio-tech age can present us with gut-wrenching and mind-twisting moral dilemmas. We should pray for the day when all society, including research scientists, will respect each individual human being from his or her very inception. This is what Dignitas Personae urges us to work and pray for.   Only moral science can be good science and produce the kinds of personal and social goods we all desire.