instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

How rigorist is the Church?

I received an email, with the subject "Re: Georgetown," consisting of the following, with a link to the full document:
ADDRESS OF JOHN PAUL II
TO THE MEMBERS
OF THE PONTIFICAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
Monday, 10 November 2003


I have on other occasions stated that stem cells for purposes of experimentation or treatment cannot come from human embryo tissue. I have instead encouraged research on adult human tissue or tissue superfluous to normal fetal development. Any treatment which claims to save human lives, yet is based upon the destruction of human life in its embryonic state, is logically and morally contradictory, as is any production of human embryos for the direct or indirect purpose of experimentation or eventual destruction.
I assume the purpose of the email was to counter my statement below that Georgetown University Medical Center's use of the cells derived from aborted fetuses is, as far as I can tell, not contrary to explicit Catholic doctrine.

The excerpt from the Pope's speech asserts the following as morally unacceptable:
  1. Using stem cells from human embryo tissue for purposes of experimentation or treatment.
  2. Treatment based upon the destruction of human life in its embryonic state.
  3. Production of human embryos for the direct or indirect purpose of experimentation.
If what I've read is correct, GUMC researchers are not using stem cells from human embryo tissue, nor are they producing human embryos for experimentation.

Is GUMC researching treatment based upon the destruction of human life? Certainly not formally (they aren't actually destroying human life, as far as has been reported), and certainly not immediately materially (they aren't providing necessary assistance to those who are or have destroyed human life).

The Children of God for Life seem to be rigorists on the question of mediate material cooperation. To them, any use of cells derived from aborted human bodies is immoral, and there is no point in asking whether the good effects outweigh the bad effects when the means themselves are immoral.

But if the question is whether this rigorist position is explicit Catholic doctrine, we can't assume it is in trying to decide whether GUMC is researching treatment based upon the destruction of human life in the sense condemned by the Pope.

If the research by its very nature requires the destruction of human life, then clearly it is immoral. If, on the other hand, it incidentally happens to use cell lines derived from the destruction of human life, then if we are not rigorists we cannot say it is clearly immoral.

I know essentially nothing about medical research, still less about the research using aborted fetal cell lines being done at GUMC. But I did find a web page describing the research of Dr. Yingxian Xiao, assistant professor of pharmacology, which uses HEK 293 cells, one of the morally problematic lines:
Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) are acetylcholine-gated cation channels that are widely distributed in the central and peripheral nervous systems....

We have expressed the different nAChR subtypes in HEK 293 cells. The stable clonal cell lines generated from the heterologous expression provide cell models for each of the nAChR subtypes. We are using these cell lines to study the molecular biological, pharmacological, functional and pathological characteristics of nAChR subtypes.
Relying on a twenty-year-old Biology 101 course, I'd say it sounds like HEK 293 is simply a convenient cell line for this research, and any treatment that might result from it will not depend on the direct use of the cells. In other words, this sounds like research that could be done using cell lines derived in an unquestionably moral manner. If all their research is of a similar nature, it would, in my understanding, mean GUMC is not researching treatment based upon the destruction of human life.

There are a lot of places where I may be wrong. I may be wrong about Dr. Xiao's research, I may be wrong about other research at GUMC, I may be wrong about the rigorist position not being required by Catholic doctrine and about a more probabilioristic position being licit for Catholics.

But asserting the rigorist position as Catholic doctrine -- however popular both the position and assertion are in certain circles -- won't convince me I'm wrong.

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