Support Stem Cell Research to Save Lives

April 26, 2006 | By | Reply More

I can’t believe that it’s actually necessary to argue that we should allow medical research that might give numerous people a fighting change to survive horrible diseases.  But here we are.  We live in an age where many things have been turned upside down. 

I wrote the following letter on November 27, 2005 after attending Catholic Mass at a church in my neighborhood.  I attended because I had heard that priests throughout Missouri had been instructed by their superiors to preach against a proposed Missouri Constitutional Amendment that would allow stem cell research to continue

Washington University in St. Louis is a major medical research center that conducts stem cell research.  The Missouri legislature has regularly threatened to prohibit stem cell research in Missouri, giving rise to a proposed Amendment that is being promoted by  The Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

MCLC describes the amendment as follows: 

Should Missouri patients have access to medical cures that are available to other Americans?
That’s the key issue that led a coalition of patient and medical groups to develop the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, a voter referendum measure proposed for the November 2006 statewide ballot.

Stem cells could provide cures for diseases and injuries that afflict hundreds of thousands of Missouri children and adults and millions of other Americans – including diabetes, Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, ALS, sickle cell disease and spinal cord injury.

Unfortunately, some politicians in Jefferson City are trying to pass state laws that would ban and criminalize important types of stem cell research in Missouri – and actually prevent Missouri patients from having access to future stem cell cures that are federally-approved and available to patients in other states.

The MCLS site is an information-rich site on the topic of stem cell research.

Missouri voters will decide this issue in November 2006.  I am in favor of this proposed amendment because stem cell research gives doctors more tools and more hope for curing numerous vicious diseases. 

I knew that priests all over St. Louis would be condemning this proposed Amendment because it allegedly “kills babies.”  I wanted to hear the sermon for myself. 

With that introduction, here is what I wrote to one priest who delivered one of the many anti-stem cell research sermons in St. Louis on November 27, 2005:

I attended Mass today out of curiosity.  I wanted to hear what you had to say about stem cell research. I saw you carefully holding that beautiful baby at the front of the church, as you spoke of being faithful to life’s little things in order to fully appreciate “big ideas.”

Then I heard you characterize stem cell research as the creation and destruction of human lives, all paid for by tax dollars.  You announced that embryos are human lives and that they should not be “used and discarded.”  You stated that there were “other ways” to cure debilitating diseases.  You told your parishioners to consider these things when they are asked to sign the stem cell initiative petition.  You indicated that one Saint Margaret of Scotland parishioner was a medical ethicist and that he would explain the technical issues at a later session.

Before I go further, I want to make it known that I truly love of many aspects of the Catholic Church.  I was raised Catholic.  The church presents parishioners with a much-needed sense of community in this crazy world.  The church inspires selfless and wonderful good works by many parishioners.  The tangible rituals, including the lush music, concretize this sense of community that, for many parishioners, would be totally absent in their lives without the Catholic Church.  The heroic presence of St. Margaret’s has stabilized the Shaw neighborhood for many years.

I know that you are a thoughtful man, as indicated by your carefully worded homily.  I want to remind you of what’s going on “out here” on this side of the pulpit.  Many of my close friends who are Catholics want very much to feel comfortable in their Church, but tell me they are constantly being pushed away by official Catholic positions such as the one that you announced today.  There is only one way to bring those people back to your church, and that is for the Church to learn to be open-minded and humble.

Intellectual honesty requires you to invite the parishioners to go to the stem cell initiative web site to review the reasons for signing that stem cell petition.  The web site, which offers detailed position papers, is .  And why not invite a spokesperson for The Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures to speak to your parishioners? 

Fairness would require you to suggest to the parishioners that the little baby you held (I believe her name was “Ella”) might someday be dying of some wretched disease that will rot away her body and put her in a horrific pain, yet the Church’s position is that the parishioners should put the interests of un-implanted zygotes ahead of Ella’s health.  You might as well have said, “Microscopic un-implanted zygotes are more important than this beautiful baby. You must each cast your vote to impede the efforts of the many dedicated scientists trying to save the lives of babies like Ella’s.”

Apparently, the forte of the Catholic Church these days is to identify the truly gut-wrenching moral conundrums that concern when life begins and when life ends, such as euthanasia, abortion, birth control, and now stem cells. After identifying these positions, the church plan appears to be to hand down edicts that insult the abilities of parishioners to carefully consider all sides of the issues and make decisions on their own.  In fact, the Church encourages its members to not consider alternative points of view.  That’s what happened today, when you proposed that a (pre-screened) ethicist would explain the official Catholic position for the parishioners and when you failed to encourage the parishioners to consider reasons for signing the initiative petition. It is a sad day when issues are not decided on their merits, but on what someone in Rome commands.

I know that that your superiors ordered you to give this homily today.  You had a choice, though.  You could have shown the parishioners the respect they deserved (based upon Martin Buber’s concept of I-Thou). Or you could cram a one-sided position down their throats, as you were ordered.  You chose the approach that would not get you reassigned to some out-of-the-way undesirable new job. I understand the pressures you must have faced.  If your sermon has the intended effect, however, many children will end up dead, but not to save other children. If only that were so.  Those zygotes to be used in laboratories were not going to be implanted in anyone’s uterus anyway.  The church’s position is to sacrifice real-life babies (and adults), but those zygotes that die will still die (or never be created).  This debate is thus vastly different than the debate over abortion. 

Speaking of the deaths of zygotes, “God” designed us so that half of the fertilized human eggs never implant (that’s about 15,000 each day in the U.S.) (see  Further, more than 1,500 miscarriages occur every day in the U.S.   In your analysis, each of these events would need to be characterized as “dead babies” killed by God.  The absurdity of this extension (of your own analysis) requires that Rome needs to rethink this entire issue of whether a microscopic un-implanted zygote is really the moral equivalent of the baby you held in church.

I suspect that in private conversations with parishioners who disagree with you, your position on the stem cell issue might not be so stark as the one you delivered today.  If so, that would be telling.  Are you really prepared to tell two parents whose baby is dying of a potentially curable disease that it is all worth it, because no zygotes died in vain.  Zygotes, which have no brains and absolutely no ability to sense pain (ask any biologist).  Un-implanted zygotes, 15,000 of which are expelled from the bodies of U.S. women every day—pregnancies regularly fail because zygotes don’t implant.  I have never heard of any Catholic ever consider having a funeral for the death of a zygote.  I do know of the tremendous sadness of parents who have had to bury children killed by potentially curable diseases.

I would suggest, in the future, that you publicly encourage your parishioners to educate themselves. Encourage them to educate themselves regarding the many perspectives regarding complicated issues, including perspectives antithetical to the Church.  Tell your parishioners to do their homework and become well informed before making decisions.  Remind them that you will respect them even if they arrive at opinions and decisions contrary to those commanded by Rome. 

I also suggest that you remind your parishioners that your superiors told you to condemn stem cell research.  If your personal opinion is different than what you proposed today, I urge you to plainly admit this to your parishioners.  You should also admit to the parishioners that the moral equivalence of microscopic un-implanted organisms with the baby you held in your arms is highly controversial, even among practicing Catholics.   You should also freely admit that scientists themselves believe that the stem cell research proposed by the Missouri constitutional amendment is far more promising that other methods of research.  In all fairness, you should also admit that the scientists are in the best position to know what research methods are most likely to save lives.

When giving official church positions, you should remind your parishioners that the Catholic Church has often been dreadfully wrong.  To the obviously wrong positions regarding Galileo, the massive pedophilia cover-up and the Church’s inactivity and silence during the Nazi Holocaust, I would add the church’s reprehensible treatment of gays and its condemnation of effective birth control, a position responsible for the unconscionable and constant suffering of billions of people who currently have no access to decent food, water or housing. 

Finally, I suggest that you remind your parishioners of one very big idea, indeed: that we have each been given a great gift, a mind.  With this gift comes an obligation to use it, going where the facts lead us and not drawing the curve before we plot the data.  Unless the parishioners hear a lot more about this big idea, you will be preaching to an ever-smaller audience of parishioners ever-less willing to think for themselves.  Is that what you want?  Apparently, that is what Rome wants.

To my knowledge, Jesus never commented on zygotes.  He never preached that babies should die so that un-implanted zygotes could live.  Jesus reportedly loved children.  He regularly took the time to heal the sick. Jesus healed “every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matt. 9: 35).

What would Jesus do?  The Bishops should not be so presumptuous.



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Category: Politics, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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