The False “Cure” of Embryonic Stem Cells


On August 23, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued an injunction prohibiting the use of federal funds to support human embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), because it violated federal law prohibiting the destruction of human embryos. Even if his ruling is overturned by the Supreme Court (it’s unclear which way Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is weak on life issues, would go) or by new congressional legislation, it struck fear into the hearts of the supporters of the culture of death.

Almost immediately after Justice Lamberth’s ruling, the Washington Post published an article announcing “Human tests set for stem cells,” which noted that “scientists are poised to inject cells created from human embryonic stem cells into some patients with a progressive form of blindness,” despite the risk that doing so may seriously harm those into whom they are injected.

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Here I want to focus on three points: the sound reasoning showing that the use of some human beings to benefit others is gravely immoral and unjust; the relevant practical considerations on the value of embryonic stem cell research in comparison to adult stem cell research; and the reasons why good arguments against embryonic stem cell research, abortion, mercy killing, and so on fail to persuade people in today’s culture of death — and the way we can change that culture.

Using Some Human Beings for the Benefit of Others

Over a quarter-century ago, the great Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas declared: “Drafting him [an unconscious person] for non-therapeutic experiments is simply and unqualifiedly not permissible; progress or not, he must never be used on the inflexible principle that demands utter protection” (Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man).

Commenting on Jonas’s “inflexible principle,” the great Protestant moral theologian Paul Ramsey wrote: “The fetal subject is also among the unconscious, with the small but irrelevant difference that the fetus has never been conscious” (The Ethics of Fetal Research). Both Jonas and Ramsey considered all living members of the human species as human persons, defending the absolute inviolability of innocent human persons from direct attack from the very first moment of their existence until natural death.

A less philosophical but nonetheless relevant reasoning is this: Those wanting to kill human embryos to get their stem cells obviously recognize that these embryos are human beings. The problem is that, like many shaped by the culture of death, they claim that not all members of the human species are “persons,” and that to regard all living human beings as persons is to be guilty of “specieism.” They would not dare (or want) to kill, say, panda embryos, or the embryos of other endangered species. If they did, they would face the wrath of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other organizations that would surely agitate to make such killing a crime. And yet, these groups have no objection to — and, in some cases, even endorse — the killing of human embryos, insofar as doing so protects our environment from “pollution” by too many people.

Benefits of Embryonic Stem Cell Research vs. Adult Stem Cell Research

Despite the propaganda trumpeting the benefits that embryonic stem cells will bring to thousands of people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and other crippling injuries and maladies, not one cure using human embryonic stem cells has been found during the more than 20 years scientists have been studying them.

On the other hand, hundreds of cures have already been effected using adult stem cells, and each week brings news of more cures or ameliorizations of injuries and diseases. Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics publishes frequent studies showing the failure of embryonic stem cell research to offer any cures — despite the vast sums poured into such research and the claims made by “leading” researchers — and the successes of adult stem cell research and research using morally obtained pluripotential stem cells.

Why Good Arguments Fail to Persuade

In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II noted that it is correct to emphasize “the importance of certain choices which ‘shape’ a person’s entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices can be situated and allowed to develop.” Today, the anthropology at the heart of the culture of death regards the “person” as a conscious subject, and the human body as a tool or instrument of that subject — part of the subhuman world over which the “person” has dominion.

If people commit themselves to this anthropology, even the strongest arguments defending the truth — that human persons are bodily beings whose bodies are integral to their being — will fall on deaf ears. The culture they have allowed to shape them blocks them from hearing the truth. Those committed to embryonic stem cell research, to Planned Parenthood, and in general to the anthropology regnant in our society are crippled in their effort to understand who they are and who they are called to be.

Better arguments — if there were any — would not help. What is needed is a new evangelization, or rather an evangelization of a society crippled by the culture of death. Such evangelization might lead people to a genuine metanoia or change of heart and repentance.

  • William E. May

    William E. May is the Emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology, Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America and Senior Fellow at The Culture of Life Foundation, Washington, D.C.

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