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The immorality of embryonic stem cell research

Fr. Juan Carlos Iscara

Originally printed in the November 2000 issue of The Angelus

Many voices have been raised in recent days to support embryonic stem cell research, which offers new hopes of finding a cure to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, heart ailments, etc. Scientists, film stars and lawmakers have flocked before the congressional Appropriations Committee overseeing human services, in support of the proposed legislation that will grant federal funding to a line of research that requires the destruction of the embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. Mary Tyler Moore, herself gravely threatened by diabetes, has touchingly described such embryos as having "no more resemblance to a human being than a goldfish," 1 which is true if we consider only their external shape, but of course their "humanness" does not depend on how they look, but on what they are!

Basic Questions

The author of the present article cannot claim a particular competence in, or an inclination towards, the technical intricacies of modern medical research —nor can he present himself as a professional in the highly specialized field of "Bioethics." Yet, as a priest, by office called to offer guidance to those who approach him with crucial moral questions, he can attempt to situate the debate where it really belongs —into the absolute basics on the nature and purpose of man. Because, in fact, the solution to the ethical dilemma that seems to keep our lawmakers awake at night (or so they say) lies in the answers given to two fundamental questions.

First, an epistemological question —how do we know, in any given situation, the good to be pursued and the evil to be avoided? In other words, is there any immutable norm to which one can refer in cases of moral perplexity, a scale of values that is independent of the contradictory interests and desires of the people involved?

Second, the concrete question that holds the key to the present dilemma —is the embryo a human person? If the embryo is simply an agglomeration of human tissues, "it" is not a person; it has no rights and can be disposed of accordingly, especially if it is at the service of the needs of others. But if he is a human person, then he has in him the image of God, he is called to a supernatural destiny, and his life is sacred. In a legal context, he is also a subject of rights who has to be protected, particularly against any aggressor that threatens his life. What constitutes, then, a human being? All the ethical questions that determine how we should treat one another and ourselves flow ineradicably from these assumptions about who we are.

Moral Absolutes

Regarding the first question, Catholic doctrine, contained in Scripture and constantly re-proposed by the Magisterium, teaches that moral absolutes do exist: they are norms, valid always and everywhere, universally applicable in every conceivable situation, that proscribe some actions and command others.

Such moral absolutes imply the existence of an objective moral order, in which some actions are objectively good, and others objectively evil —"objectively" here means that the actions are in and by themselves either good or evil, independently of their surrounding circumstances or of our own intentions, of their usefulness, or of the pleasure that they give us. It is an order, in consequence, which is not fleeting or whimsical, which cannot be made up at will, which exists apart from our will and to which our actions have to conform to be called "good." The knowledge of that objective moral order is inborn in the hearts and minds of men, at least in its general principles (what philosophers call "natural law"), and for more sure guidance, it has been revealed to us by God, Truth Himself, who cannot err and who cannot lead us into error. Without such an immutable, universal standard of moral goodness and moral malice, it is impossible to judge with any kind of certitude what is ethical and what is not, what is permissible and what is forbidden.

However, today the very existence of moral absolutes is questioned or vociferously denied. The notion of a "pluralistic" society, as it is understood in our days and hailed by our politicians,2 bars the possibility of the existence of any absolutes, and forbids us even to think that there is an objectively right order in anything. For if there is such an order, it will impose itself upon us, sharply reducing the number of choices and lifestyles open to us. It will force us either to do what we do not want to do, or to live with the certitude that we are doing wrong —either way, it will take away our "freedom" to do as we please.

Contemporary Disorder

In consequence, in the fiercely post-Christian society in which we live, a new system, or chaos, of moral values has been raised in place of the objective moral order. This system has as its sole foundation, not truth or reality, but the decisions of the courts and the sentimental reactions of a public aroused and pampered by the media.

For our contemporaries, the only truly absolute values seem to be freedom and autonomy, efficiency and gratification.3 Absolute freedom means that, insofar as one desires something, it should be permissible to attain it, and everything —social conventions, political structures, religious convictions —must bend backwards to make such attainment possible. Absolute autonomy means the loss of the sense of solidarity, of service to others —one lives almost exclusively for oneself, interrelating with others only insofar as one’s self-interest requires such interrelation. Absolute efficiency means that only what is useful is to be considered good. In the bioethical context of this article, this means that whatever a technology can do, simply because it is technically feasible, is good and should be put at our disposal. Absolute gratification means that one’s pleasure is the good to be sought at any cost, and that contradiction, suffering and pain are the evils to be avoided, also at any cost.

Brought together, all these aspects of American life favor certain positions that have appeared in the last years in medical ethics: the tendency to withdraw food and drink, to consider as dead those who are partially "brain-dead," to use the tissues of aborted fetuses for experimentation, to attempt to establish a price for the organs destined for transplants, to favor a position "pro-choice," even if one is opposed to abortion in itself, to have no consideration for those who argue from a theological point of view, and to favor the legalization of euthanasia and "assisted" suicide.4

The perplexity and ethical wrestling of our lawmakers arise from the sad fact that, today, as for the last 200 years (that is, since the French Revolution put an end to Christendom), they are expected to decide on their own, without reference to a stable and universally applicable standard, what is good and what is evil.5 They must then translate this decision into laws, attempting at the same time the impossible task of pleasing their constituents (who have their own contrary ideas of what is right and wrong)6 and of appeasing their own consciences (assuming that they have any).

Finally, the high-minded discourse on the part of politicians and the back-and-forth argumentation on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research mask one little detail which nobody seems to remember, to wit, that the origin and main point of this discussion is about the federal funding of this research, that is, whether or not the taxpayers’ money is going to be given to the laboratories which pursue this line of research. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration banned federal support for any research involving human embryos. However, if the research is privately funded, as it has been until now, it is legal —no moral fuss, no questions asked! It is only government funding that is not allowed. It seems, therefore, that the ethical question regards only whether tax money can be appropriated for a research to which a part of the lawmakers’ constituencies is opposed. It has nothing to do, really, with the human and moral status of the embryo.

In light of these facts, then, the ethical commotion of Congress and the media seems to come a bit late —hypocritically so, to say the least…

Let us proceed now to the much longer answer to the second question, which will also allow us to attach a moral qualification to the proposed medical procedures.


But before going further —you may say —what are "embryonic stem cells" and what is the "research" all about? Glad you asked.

After fertilization, the zygote7 divides and develops. When it is about to implant itself in the uterus, the cells have differentiated into two masses. The "outer cell mass," or trophoblast, will form the placenta and the other support organs necessary for the development of the child in the mother’s womb. The "inner cell mass," also called embryoblast or embryonic stem cells, will form the body. At this stage, the stem cells are "totipotent," that is, they are identical to each other, and each one of them is individually capable of developing a whole organism. In the next stage, they become "pluripotent," that is, they are no longer capable of producing a complete organism, but retain the ability to develop into any of the more than 200 different kinds of cells that make up the adult human body. After this stage, they mature into the specialized cells that constitute the different tissues and organs (neurons, muscle, bone, blood, skin, etc.). Some of them remain in the adult as stem cells capable of reproducing themselves, repairing and regenerating tissues throughout life.

As the Pontifical Academy for Life has pointed out in its recent document,8 embryonic stem cells have been used in research for more than 30 years, but today public attention has been drawn to the question because of the new-found technological capability to produce them. The ability to isolate stem cells is a giant step towards understanding what makes them differentiate into one type of cells instead of another, with the consequent therapeutic potential implied in the control of such process.

Until now, tissues harvested from aborted fetuses have been widely used in research, and for transplantation into patients suffering from grave disabling diseases. The aim has been to make the fetal tissues carry on their proper function, taking over and restoring to some degree the diseased host organs. In spite of controversies about their effectiveness, such procedures have nevertheless continued, and today the research on embryonic stem cells offers renewed hopes of success. In theory, the stem cells extracted during the early stages of development (note well that the extraction implies destroying the embryo) can be preserved, cultured and manipulated to become any of those different kinds of cells. With the advances of modern technology, there is founded expectation that —in the years to come —they could be directed to replace cells and repair organs which are injured or dying because of some disease. They will be important also in the research and development of life-saving drugs and cell-replacement therapies used to treat disorders caused by early cell death or impairment.9

Of course, the mere continuation of such research requires an abundance of stem cells. There are four principal methods currently used for retrieving embryonic stem cells.10

The first is to use the tissues of aborted fetuses. This is the method of preference to harvest embryonic germ cells, which originate from the primordial reproductive cells of the developing fetus, and which have properties very similar to the embryonic stem cells.

The second is to use human eggs and sperm from a variety of donors to produce embryos by fertilization in vitro solely for retrieving the stem cells.

For some foreseeable therapeutic uses of stem cells, such as growing organs for transplant or creating cells to treat spinal cord injury —still very much in an uncertain future —the cells would need to match the immune system of the eventual patient. The production of embryonic stem cells by cloning is aimed, then, to obtain embryos that are the genetic twins of those patients. In this third method, the nucleus of a human —or even animal —egg is replaced with the nucleus of an adult cell of a given human subject. It is then directed to develop into the blastocyst11 stage, whereupon the inner cell mass is retrieved to continue the culture and manipulation necessary in order to obtain from it the desired differentiated cells.

The fourth method (simpler, cost-effective, and therefore more favored) is to use the "spare" embryos produced for fertility treatments, which include the technologies known as GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer), ZIFT (zygote intrafallopian transfer), and IVF (in vitro fertilization). About 100,000 of those embryos, according to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa),12 are currently preserved frozen by fertility clinics nationwide. In this method, such frozen embryos are thawed and allowed to develop into the blastocyst stage, when the stem cells are extracted.

Alternative sources for stem cells with similar capabilities of embryonic stem cells have also been identified. It was already known that many adult tissues contain stem cells, but these are capable only of producing the cells proper to a certain tissue. More recently, pluripotent stem cells have been discovered in bone marrow, in the brain, in various organs and in the umbilical cord, capable of producing blood cells, muscle cells and neural cells. These "adult stem cells" have shown promise in clinical experiments for the treatment of many diseases.13 Stem cells from bone marrow, placenta or umbilical cord of live births are already in use for treating leukemia, and research has indicated that such cells can be altered to develop into cartilage and bone. Neural stem cells have been isolated from living nerve tissue and shown promise for treating Parkinson’s disease and brain injuries. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute (Sweden) have isolated adult brain cells that divided, and they are convinced that it would be possible to retrieve adult brain stem cells to treat Parkinson’s patients with their own stem cells, avoiding immunological problems.14


In the last decades, the notions of human being and person seem to have been separated in academic, scientific and legal discourse. "Human being" appears as restricted to the living organism that possesses the genetic make-up of the human animal, while "person" seems to be reserved to the human individual actually, here and now, capable of consciousness. A normative list of the activities that constitute the person is far from being agreed on by all: some require the actual capacity to reason and a concept of self, others the capacity to relate consciously to the world and to communicate with other men, while still other ethicists require a sense of the future and of the past, a sense of humor, and even curiosity15….In any case, the restriction of the definition of "person" to these functional and relational terms leads to the obvious conclusion that not all "human beings" necessarily qualify as "persons."16

In our particular case, this conclusion means that the embryo, even admittedly being of human nature, has not yet arrived at the stage in which he will become capable of reflection, consciousness, and, therefore, he is not a person now. The same general conclusion, when applied to those who are permanently deprived of actual consciousness of self, or of relational capacity (such as the comatose, the permanently demented, etc.), generates new ethical problems and opens up horrible alternatives.

Furthermore, matters have been supremely muddled by the Supreme Court’s decision (Roe vs. Wade) to legalize abortion on the basis of its acceptance of the notion —without any reference to reality or nature —that a "human embryo" is not a "human person," and therefore, not a subject of rights.17

Let us therefore explain the notions of "human nature" and "person." The explanation is not easy, but it is necessary to correct modern errors and misunderstandings.

Man Is a Composite of Soul and Body

"Essence" is that by which a thing is what it is. Man’s essence is to be a composite of body and soul, material body and spiritual soul —he is an "embodied spirit," in whom both biological corporeality and spiritual soul are essentially present in a substantial unity. The body is a human body by reason of its union with the soul. The soul is the distinctively human element, the "form" of the body. This soul does not exist before the body, but it is created directly by God at the same instant in time as the body is formed by the fusion of the human egg and sperm. The soul starts its existence only in conjunction with the living human body, but since it is spiritual, and not subject to decay as is the body, it survives death (the separation of body and soul) into eternity.

Man’s Nature Is Rational

"Nature" is the essence of something, insofar as it is the principle of the thing’s operation. Every being has a nature which determines its typical mode of acting —that is, every creature acts in a certain manner because it is in a particular manner, which is determined by its essence. To human nature correspond two specific, proper operations: rational thought and free will.

The Image of God in Man

These specific operations distinguish the rational animal that is man from all other animals, and constitute in man the "image of God" spoken of in the Book of Genesis.18 The Fathers of the Church, and St. Thomas Aquinas following in their steps,19 have distinguished between the "image" and the "likeness." The "image" is our rational nature. By having reason and free will we are a reflection of the divine nature, and by using them we imitate His action upon the world and co-create with Him our own actions. The "likeness" is the supernatural life of grace, by which we not only reflect, but participate in an intimate way in the very life of God, in His divine nature.20 Because of the image of God that he carries in himself, man’s life is sacred, and the fifth commandment forbids the taking of an innocent human life.

For this reason also, man is far above the rest of the visible creation (although some modern ethicists21 contest this as "human chauvinism," a "speciesist" mentality which is at the root of our lack of "ecological sensitivity," etc.).

The Human Embryo Is a Person

Today, though accepting that the embryo is "human," that it has the potential to arrive one day at the exercise of those specific operations of rational thought and free will, many deny nevertheless that he is —here and now —a human person. Yet true science confirms what philosophy proves: the human embryo is a human person, from the very moment of conception in his mother’s womb.

What is a "person"? St. Thomas Aquinas defined it in the strictest philosophical terms: the person is the "distinct being, subsisting in an intellectual nature." 22

As the whole weight of our argumentation on the morality of embryonic stem cell research rests on the personhood of the human embryo, we will have to keep "philosophizing"…

Everybody acknowledges that, among all beings on earth, the human person ranks highest. This is because he combines two great dignities —the dignity of independence in being and the dignity of reason, or rationality.

Man has independence in being because he exists in himself. Surely, at certain stages of his life, he may need somebody to feed him, but as far as being is concerned, he stands on his own. The technical term for this independence in being is "subsistence," and what has "subsistence" is called a "substance." Most of the substances, mineral, vegetable or merely animal, do not have the dignity of having reason, intelligence.

The two dignities of reason and subsistence are combined in the rational being that stands on its own, that has independence in existence —which is the philosophical definition of "person" as given by St. Thomas.

As such, this definition can be equally applied to God, angels and men. Here we are not concerned with the divine or angelic persons. What concerns us here is the precise question, when exactly does the human person begin to be a person, or, when does the human embryo first have rationality and when does it first have subsistence?

Let us begin with the rationality. By rationality, or reason, we might mean either rational nature, that is, that nature which includes the faculty of reason, or the use of that faculty or nature. Obviously, a human child only begins to use his reason when he reaches the age of, say, five or six. But does that mean he does not have the faculty or nature of reason until then? If he did not already have the faculty, how could he begin to use it? Do I say that because I am not using my car, therefore I do not have a car? Of course not! In truth, the child has reason dormant in him, and it normally takes a few years to awaken, but that does not mean that it is not there. The faculty was born in him; it did not arrive at a later moment, when the mother was not looking. Did he acquire it at birth? Again, no. The embryo and the fetus only differ developmentally from the infant: in the process of growth, he does not become something fundamentally different. The development of the individual is a smooth biological process, without radical discontinuity and with clear continuity of identity; in consequence, there is no persuasive biological reason that would deny the possession of the basic nature to the developing individual at any stage of the process.23

In the past, there were some doubts about the exact moment of the beginning of human life. Such doubts were mainly due to the continuing influence of the Greek philosophical tradition,24 itself determined by the inability to observe directly the process of conception and early development of the new human being. Today, while modern embryology and genetics cannot either prove or disprove that the embryo is a person ("person" being a philosophical concept, it is not empirically demonstrable), they have shown that as it begins its development in the mother’s womb, the new organism is already an individual of human nature. That is, that in the zygote resulting from fertilization the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted.

Man’s rational nature, including the faculty of reason, backs up then to the very first moment of his conception, or existence. It is only the use of that faculty or nature which must wait for a few years.

But then —second question —when did any human being begin to subsist, or to stand on his own in existence? At first sight, it looks as though the embryo is totally dependent on its mother to exist, so it cannot have the dignity of subsistence, or be a person, until it is at least clearly separated from his mother at birth. But these appearances, as judged by both philosophy and science, are deceptive. We are confusing two kinds of dependence, biological and ontological.

Let us consider some examples. To survive, my pet parakeet depends on me to feed it. That is biological dependence. But while the parakeet depends on me to continue in existence, it does not depend on me to stand in existence. It stands on its own. On the contrary, the white color in a wall depends on the wall not only to continue, but also to stand in existence. The whiteness has no existence on its own: if the wall is destroyed, the whiteness is destroyed. That dependence in very being is called ontological dependence.

Now let us come back to the human embryo. Obviously, it is in total biological dependence on its mother from the very moment it is conceived until at least birth, from which point the biological dependence begins to fall off, taking years to cease altogether. But the embryo’s ontological dependence is a different matter: from the very instant of conception, the fetus is already living by its own life. In relationship to his mother, the embryo is not like a member or an organ, which is an integral part of the maternal body. He "implants" himself in her uterus, and she "has" or "carries" him with her; she nourishes him and protects him while he develops, but the embryo is not an integral part of her.

He is a unique, complete unit, constitutionally distinct from the mother, and constitutionally autonomous in his own order.25 He is a subsistent of rational nature, hence, a person.

The conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning…a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a person (emphasis added)?26


Against the distorted contemporary values, the Magisterium of the Church has not ceased to remind us of the right hierarchical order of values. As is frequently the case on these bioethical questions, we will simply turn to the luminous teaching of Pope Pius XII — "the last great Doctor of the Church," in the words of Archbishop Lefebvre —who witnessed the emergence of our present ethical dilemmas, set down the general principles to solve them, and forestalled possible objections.

The Unity of Man and the Primacy of Spirit over Body

Made up of matter and spirit, an element in the universal order of beings, man is in fact directed in his life here below towards a goal which is beyond time and above nature27The Vision and Love of God in Heaven.

Because matter and spirit compenetrate in the perfect unity of the human composite, decisions which affect the care of the body, of its members and organs, will also have to include the consideration of the soul and man’s supernatural destiny. The good of man is the good of the whole person. This good is defined not only by the preservation of man’s bodily integrity, but also by the subordination of his biological life to higher goods. These goods are the common good of civil and ecclesiastical society and the good of man’s own spiritual welfare.

What purpose would be served by the use and development of the body, of its energies, of its beauty, if it were not at the service of something more noble and lasting, namely, the soul?…It is sound to teach man to respect his body, but not to esteem the body more than is right.…Care of the body is not man’s first anxiety, neither the earthly and mortal body as it is now, nor the glorified body made spiritual as it will be one day. The first place in man’s composite being does not belong to the body taken from the earth’s slime, but to the spirit, to the spiritual soul.28

Forgetfulness of this particular make-up of man, the hierarchical relationship of body and soul, and of the objective goal of his life allows the destructive tendencies of utilitarianism and hedonism to take over, and leads to an absolute autonomy from the moral law.29

The Magisterium has not ceased to remind scientists of the same truth:

One of the gravest risks, to which our age is exposed, is this divorce between science and morals, between the possibilities offered by a technology projected always towards more astonishing goals, and the ethical norms arising from a nature more and more neglected. It is necessary…to reaffirm the priority of ethics over technology, the primacy of the person over material things, the superiority of the spirit over matter. Only on this condition will scientific progress…not become a modern Moloch who devours his imprudent worshippers (emphasis added).30

As a corollary, one must admit that not all research nor every therapeutic method is equally moral. The fact that a method is feasible or that it deepens our knowledge does not mean that it is morally licit.

Sometimes it happens that one method cannot be put into operation without infringing on the rights of another, or violating some absolute moral value. In this case, advancement of knowledge is the goal seen and aimed at —all well and good; but this method is not morally admissible.31

Dominion of God and Stewardship of Man

Dominion is the legitimate power to dispose of something as one’s own.32 It belongs in its most perfect sense to God, because He is the Creator, Conservator and Ultimate End of all that exists. "The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof: the world and all they that dwell therein." 33

By creating man in His "image and likeness," God has given him a participation in His dominion. "Let Us make man at Our image and likeness; and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth…." 34 Regarding external things man can truly call himself "owner," "proprietor," but before God he remains a mere administrator. Consequently, no man can use this dominion according to his own good pleasure, but only according to the will of God who has delegated to him such power. Man is the steward of God. Moreover, as dominion is a legitimate faculty, that is, a faculty granted by law —divine, natural or positive —man can only exercise it within the limits established by the law.

Two principal conclusions follow:

First: man only has the use not the absolute property of the goods of his body and soul. Man is the steward of God, from Whom he has received his body and soul, to administer them in a manner convenient to the attainment of the end for which he has been created, the vision and love of God. A steward does not have absolute dominion over the goods so entrusted to him, but is bound to administer them according to the will of the owner.

In forming man, God regulated each of his functions, assigning them to the various organs.…At the same time, God fixed, prescribed and limited the use of each organ. He cannot therefore allow man now to arrange his life and the functions of his organs according to his own taste, and in a manner contrary to the intrinsic and immanent function assigned them. Man, in truth, is not the owner of his body, nor its absolute lord, but only its user. A whole series of principles and norms derives from this fact, governing the use of the body with its members and organs, and the right to dispose of them: principles and norms to which are equally subject the individual concerned and the doctor called in for consultation.35

Second: no man has absolute dominion over the body and soul of any other man. Each man has received from God the same inalienable rights. Therefore, nobody can dispose at will of the physical and spiritual life of another. In this, all men are absolutely equal.

Every human being, even a child in the mother’s womb, has a right to life directly from God and not from the parents or from any human society or authority. Hence there is no man, no human authority, no science, no medical, eugenic, social, economic of moral "indication" that can offer or produce a valid juridical title to a direct deliberate disposal of an innocent human life; that is to say, a disposal that aims at its destruction whether as an end or as a means to another end, which is, perhaps, in no way unlawful in itself.36

Objection Based on the Primacy of the Common Good

But couldn’t the "principle of totality" —spoken of many times by Pope Pius XII —be put forward in favor of the use of embryos for the advance of medical research, which results will benefit the whole of mankind?

The "principle of totality" establishes that where there exists a true relationship of part to whole, the part is subordinated to the whole, and consequently, the part can be sacrificed for the good of the whole —the whole determines the part and can dispose of it in its own interest.37 The principle’s necessary corollary states, then, the primacy of the common good.

Pope Pius XII applied this principle in a bioethical context, to establish the moral permissibility of certain acts that affect the bodily integrity of man. He also applied it in the context of political doctrine, to affirm the subordination of the private good to the common good of society, and the right of the public authority to overrule the interests of the individual in the service of the community as a whole.

So, coming back to our subject, embryonic stem cell research, could it not be argued that the life of the embryos (although a good to be respected in itself) must yield to the immeasurable good to be achieved for the community? Think only of the multitude of men and women suffering now from terrible diseases, who will be cured, and of the almost infinite numbers of our posterity who will be freed from those diseases!


Pope Pius XII, foreseeing this objection, warned against the possibility of a fallacious interpretation of the principle of totality —an interpretation that, by invoking the common good, would attempt to overcome the most essential rights of the individual and remove any moral limits on government intervention in general, and on scientific research in particular.

He corrected this fallacy by making a distinction: between individuals and their society there is not the same relationship of parts to whole as there is between the organs and the body.38 Let us summarize.

The principle of totality attains all its consequences in the relationship between the organs and the body to which they belong in this case, the part exists solely for the good of the whole.

Why? Because the physical organism of man possesses as a whole a unity which subsists in itself. Each of his members (hand, foot, heart, eye…) is an integral part, destined by its whole being to be a part of the one complete organism. Outside that organism it has not, of its own nature, any meaning, any purpose: its being is wholly absorbed in that of the complete organism with which it is linked.39

The good of these organs and parts —that is, their very existence and activity —is then completely subordinated to the good of the whole, that is, of the man to which they belong. They do not have as parts a good that has necessarily to be preserved at the expense of the good of the whole.

But if the relationship of part to whole is applied to individual men living in society, further distinctions must be made. Usually, most individual goods will be subordinated to the common good, but there are essential goods of the individual which always will take precedence over the common good of society.

Why? —The reasons are multiple:

First: society is not a "whole" as the body is. "The community, considered as a whole, is not a physical unity which subsists in itself. Its individual members are not integral parts of it," 40 as the diverse organs are in relation to a man’s body. Society is a community of purpose and action,41 and the individuals are collaborators and instruments for the realization of the ends of the community.

Man is, undoubtedly, a member of the community because he is always related to and incorporated into the community. But since the community is made up of persons, it must include its members precisely as persons, that is, independent, spiritual and moral beings, and not as mere parts whose entire purpose and right of existence consists in their being the parts from which the community is formed. In other words, man is a member of society while retaining at the same time his own intrinsic worth and his own personal responsibility.42

Second: no community is an end unto itself, none is the highest end of its members, but both community and men have their end in God.43

Man is obliged, in virtue of his nature, to do always what is good, that is, what is in agreement with the moral law, what directs him unerringly to his ultimate end. No man is ever released from this obligation, neither the individual in the community, nor the community as an order of persons. The community is absolutely bound to recognize these obligations, and no appeal to the common good, no decision of a human authority can alter this.44

Third: in consequence, the good of the community is not the sole, ultimate and highest end and good of the individual, in the sense that he would fulfill the purpose of his existence by serving in the community.45

In Conclusion

Man has been created by God for an ultimate end: to see and love Him in Heaven. Man has, in consequence, the God-given rights to his own life and to his bodily integrity, and to the performance of the acts that will lead him to that ultimate end. Society can demand from the individuals subordination and service, and even the surrender of some of their particular goods for the greater good of the social body. But public authority can neither impose on individuals the renouncement of their ultimate end, nor can it deprive innocent men of the essential goods (life, integrity) that make possible the attainment of that end.

The public authority retains without doubt a direct authority and the right to impose its demands on the activity of the parts, but in no case can it dispose directly of their physical being. Every direct injury attempted against [man’s] essential being by public authority is a departure from that sphere of activity which rightly belongs to it (emphasis added).46

In our case —the destruction of human embryos for the advance of a medical research that will benefit the community —such command or permission by the public authority will not be the application of the principle of totality, but simply political (or medical) totalitarianism.47


Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Immoral

Once we have accepted the notion that the human embryo is a human person, all ethical puzzlement should vanish like an unhealthy fog under the sun.

Concrete, negative precepts —as the Fifth Commandment’s prohibition to kill an innocent —oblige and are to be observed semper et pro semper, that is, always and without exceptions. The voluntary destruction of an innocent human being is murder, equally forbidden by divine and natural law, and usually by the civil laws in agreement with those fundamental laws. The "harvesting" of embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of the embryo —then, it is murder.

No objective, even though noble in itself, such as the foreseeable advantage to science, to other human beings or to society, can in any way justify experimentation on living human embryos or fetuses, whether viable or not, either inside or outside the mother’s womb.48

A good end does not make right an action which in itself is wrong.49

The debate is over.

The Methods Used for Obtaining the Embryos Are in Themselves Gravely Immoral

Nevertheless, to prove more abundantly the immorality of the whole process, we affirm that even in the entirely hypothetical case that the retrieving of embryonic stem cells were not immoral (although it is!), the very methods used to produce the embryos for this purpose are in themselves immoral.

As an introduction, let Pius XII remind us of the general principles to be applied to any method (other than the one established by nature) of production of human embryos:

The mere fact that the means reaches the goal intended does not justify the use of such a means. Nor does the desire for a child —a completely legitimate desire of the married couple —suffice to prove that recourse to [these methods] is legitimate because it would satisfy such a desire.…Let it not be forgotten that only procreation of a new life according to the will and the plan of the Creator carries with it, to an amazing degree of perfection, the realization of intended aims. It is at the same time in conformity with the corporal and spiritual nature and the dignity of the marriage partners, and with the normal and happy development of the child (emphasis added). 50

In Vitro Fertilization Is Immoral

In this procedure, a human egg is surgically removed from the mother’s ovary, transferred to a special solution and mixed with the sperm (usually obtained through a sinful act). Once fertilization has occurred, the embryo is implanted in the uterine wall. Although the procedure has become more or less common, it still is painful, expensive and not always successful. To reduce the pain, expense and risk of failure, women are usually given drugs to stimulate ovulation, allowing the retrieval of multiple eggs at one time, which once fertilized will produce many embryos ready for implantation. Usually, the extra embryos are frozen and kept in liquid nitrogen to be used later, if need be, although freezing reduces their capacity to be implanted.

Why is this procedure immoral?

By comparison with the transmission of other forms of life in the universe, the transmission of human life has a special character of its own, which derives from the special nature of the human person. The transmission of human life is entrusted by nature to a personal and conscious act, and as such is subject to the all-holy laws of God: immutable and inviolable laws that must be recognized and observed. For this reason, one cannot use means and follow methods which could be licit in the transmission of the life of plants and animals.51

The Church has always rejected the attitude which would pretend to separate, in generation, the biological activity from the personal relation of the married couple. The child is the fruit of the conjugal union, when that union finds full expression by bringing into play the organic functions, the associated sensible emotions, and the spiritual and disinterested love which animates the union. It is in the unity of this human act that we should consider the biological considerations of generation. Never is it permitted to separate these various aspects to the positive exclusion either of the procreative intention or of the conjugal union.52

Thus, the fundamental immorality of in vitro fertilization lies in the fact that it constitutes a perversion of the order of nature —willed by God —in the use of marriage. In effect, the act of procreation is replaced by a technical intervention, which takes place apart from the physical union of the spouses. As procreation is separated from the conjugal act, so in consequence the procreative end of marriage is utterly separated from its unitive end, the mutual love and gift of the spouses. Moreover, in the usual practice of in vitro fertilization, not all of the embryos are transferred into the woman’s body; some are destroyed. Just as the Church condemns induced abortion, so she also forbids acts against the life of these human beings.…By acting in this way the researcher usurps the place of God; and, even though he may be unaware of this, he sets himself up as the master of the destiny of others inasmuch as he arbitrarily chooses whom he will allow to live and whom he will send to death, and kills defenseless human beings (emphasis added).53

Cryopreservation Is Immoral

The freezing of embryos…—cryopreservation —constitutes an offense against the respect due to human beings by exposing them to grave risks of death or harm to their physical integrity, and depriving them, at least temporarily, of maternal shelter and gestation, thus placing them in a situation in which further offenses and manipulation are possible.54

Once the embryo has been formed, we are in the presence of a human person, who has the strict right to be placed in the natural conditions necessary for his survival and perfect development. "Upon whoever gives life to the tiny creature, nature imposes, in virtue of that very bond, the duty of protecting and educating the child." 55

Cryopreservation is undeniably a violation of such duty.56

Cooperation in Any of These Actions Is Immoral

It has been suggested that the researchers may be allowed to use embryonic stem cells obtained by independent laboratories. In this manner, it is argued, the researcher would avoid any moral responsibility in the murder of the embryos, and simply use the tissues that are now available and which otherwise would go to waste. To answer this objection, we will have to delve again into principles of moral theology.

Cooperation, in moral terminology, is the assistance given by one person (the assistant, or cooperator) to another (the principal agent) in the performance of a certain action, or the concurrence of one with another in the production of a certain effect. To discern where moral responsibilities belong in the cases when the other person commits an action that is in itself sinful, moral theologians have distinguished different kinds and degrees of cooperation in that action.

"Formal cooperation" means that the assistant intends the same sinful end as the principal agent. In "material cooperation," on the contrary, the assistant does not intend that sinful end, but lets it happen. In this kind of cooperation, two different kinds are distinguished: "immediate material cooperation," which is participation in the sinful act itself, and "mediate material cooperation," which is participation in some of the circumstances that lead to the act, but not in the sinful act itself. "Mediate material cooperation" is further distinguished into "proximate" and "remote" depending on how close to the attainment of the sinful end is the action in which one participates. A second general distinction is between "necessary cooperation," meaning that the assistant’s action is strictly necessary for the attainment of the sinful end, and "contingent cooperation," in which the assistant’s action helps, but it is not necessary for the sinful act to happen.

These distinctions are necessary to understand Catholic doctrine on the levels of moral responsibility of the assistant or cooperator. Formal cooperation is always forbidden —to assist another in the performance of a sinful act, intending it, is a sin identical to that of the principal agent. Is then material cooperation permissible? Not always! Immediate material cooperation is equally forbidden, because to participate directly in a sinful act, even if having a different intention, is nevertheless the commission of that particular sin. Mediate material cooperation is permissible if certain conditions are present, namely, that the action of the cooperator is a good action in itself, and that there are grave reasons to give this assistance. The gravity of the reasons increases in proportion to the gravity of the sinful action in which one cooperates, and also in proportion to the closeness of one’s action to that sinful act.

All this complication of distinctions brings us to the resolution of the question whether it is morally permissible to use embryonic stem cells produced and prepared by laboratories independent of the researcher. The answer is no, it is equally immoral and forbidden. Why?

The researcher may usually intend primarily his research, and not necessarily the killing of human beings, in which he does not participate directly. Therefore, his cooperation is usually material, not formal, and mediate, not immediate. It is proximate, though, because the researcher has to work very closely with the provider to establish the adequate protocols for the retrieval of stem cells suitable for the research purposes. Above all, this cooperation is necessary, because the embryos are produced and killed for the research. The demand for embryonic stem cells creates a market, and the laboratories are simply the providers for such market. The researcher is the material, mediate, proximate and necessary cooperator, usually in the immoral manner of production and always in the murder of human beings. Therefore, he is also morally co-responsible for the sins committed.

Only Adult Stem Cell Research Is Licit

The possibility, now confirmed, of using adult stem cells to attain the same goals as would be sought with embryonic stem cells…indicates that adult stem cells represent a more reasonable and human method for making correct and sound progress in this new field of research and in the therapeutic applications which it promises.57

In more forceful terms, the only morally licit path still open is to continue research on adult stem cells —of course, always provided that such research neither compromises the life of the subjects, nor impairs the use of their organs and members, or of their intelligence and free will.


The conclusions to which we have arrived may seem cruel to those who are in pain, or whose hopes for their loved ones are postponed or even shattered, but in spite of our compassion, we cannot conclude otherwise. A non-Catholic ethicist, Gilbert Meilaender, has pointedly explained:

If we respect the moral limits that ought to bind us, we will not always be able to give people what they desire. We may not be able to give the infertile couple a child, the elderly man an old age free of dependence, the young woman freedom from the child she has conceived, parents the healthy and "normal" child they had wanted, the terminally ill patient a painless death….Part of the pain of human life is that we sometimes cannot, and at other times ought not, do for others what they fervently desire.58

This text leads us to a final consideration.

Life and health are certainly great gifts from God. Therefore, there is a duty to preserve life and health, and also to avoid and to fight illness, pain, and suffering. To will one’s own health is a serious act of obedience to a grave command of God. But health itself is a temporal, limited good. It is to be affirmed and willed as a gift from God, yet not in itself and absolutely, but in the manner in which, and for the end for which, He gives it. Life and health are relative goods, and the spiritual goods are higher in the scale of values.

Simone Weil59 has said that one of the great achievements of Christianity has been, not to eradicate suffering —which is beyond our human powers —but to give it meaning.

In fact, the Catholic faith looks upon suffering in a two-fold way, and these two views are not contradictory, but complementary.

Firstly, suffering is an evil, the result of sin. In this sense, suffering, like sickness and death, is unnatural and disorderly, a consequence of the rebellion of sin against God’s will. But the command of God —that man must will to live and not die, to be healthy and not sick —is not withdrawn, nor revoked, nor is it even for sinful man forfeited to the judgment of God. We should care for those who suffer, but we should not imagine that suffering can be eliminated from human life or that it can have no point or purpose in our lives. Nor should we suppose that suffering must be eliminated by any means available to us, for a good end does not justify any and every means. 60

Secondly, suffering is an occasion for spiritual growth, bringing us into greater conformity with the example of Our Lord and in submission to the will of God. Our Lord did not claim any right to a happy human life, He accepted the mission entrusted to Him by His Father and followed it to its completion through suffering and death. "A disciple is not above his teacher." We must therefore acknowledge that suffering is both an unavoidable reality in the human condition, and an integral element in our imitation of Christ.


The Final Report of the NBAC61 acknowledged that no agreement could be reached among the differing positions on the personhood of the embryo, but, in the same breath, it asserted that research must continue nonetheless. The Report concluded with the proposal of a "working agreement" —a series of conditions, agreeable to the majority, on which research is allowed to proceed forward —that bypassed and postponed for now the ethical answer and, in doing so, eased some consciences. Most of these recommendations have been accepted, and the NIH [National Institute of Health —Ed.] has just approved the guidelines for the federal funding of a research that will, of course, continue.

Our way of life is about to be changed, utterly changed. A "brave new world" is being ushered into existence by the denial of objective reality and of universal moral rules, and by unfettered scientific "progress." This "new world" is demonic, essentially godless —or more accurately, essentially blasphemous because it attempts to make gods out of men. Modern man is abandoning the idea that the universe operates by ironclad truths because he no longer feels the need to be constrained by such fetters. Nature is being made anew, this time by human beings. Man no longer feels himself to be a guest in someone else’s home and therefore obliged to make his behavior conform with a set of pre-existing cosmic rules. It is his creation now. He makes the rules. He establishes the parameters of reality. He creates the world, and because he does, he no longer feels beholden to outside forces. He no longer has to justify his behavior, for he is now the architect of the universe. He is responsible to nothing outside himself, for his are the kingdom, the power and the glory —and he mistakenly thinks that this hubris will last for ever and ever.62

  1. The Kansas City Star, Sept. 15, 2000, A/10.
  2. Harold T. Shapiro, Chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, in his September 7, 1999, letter to the President presenting the final report on the ethical issues raised by stem cell research, complacently acknowledged "the wide diversity of moral perspectives on these issues that characterizes our nation" (NBAC, Stem cell, 1). What should frighten him out of his wits pleases him!
  3. Rodriguez, Social Attitudes, pp.32-33 —although I have taken some liberties with his explanation.
  4. Puca, Trapianto, p.19.
  5. The final report of the National Bioethics Commission on the ethical implications of stem cell research clearly states that its recommendations "fully respected the moral worth of a wide variety of thoughtful viewpoints on the issues" presented for its consideration. In other words, the recommendations do not conform themselves to a pre-existing immutable moral truth, but they create their own truth based on the consensus of the nation.
  6. That this is impossible is acknowledged by the same Harold T. Shapiro (National Bioethics Commission) in the aforementioned letter: "No public policy or set of recommendations could fully bridge these disagreements and satisfy all the thoughtful moral perspectives that are held by members of the American public." Obviously, we are assisting at the birth of "demoethics"!
  7. The cell that is the product of fertilization, that is, of the fusion of the nucleus of the egg with the nucleus of the sperm. In biological terminology, the developing organism is called a zygote during the first week after fertilization, an embryo from the second to the eighth week of development (that is, from the implantation in the uterus to the beginning of the development of the major organ systems), and a fetus from the ninth week until the time of birth. Following the popular usage, however, we will use the term embryo to refer also to the zygote. See NBAC, Stem cell, pp.4-5.
  8. See Bibliography.
  9. NBAC, Stem cell, i.
  10. NBAC, Stem cell, i-ii.
  11. The stage of development of the embryo that results from the division of the fertilized egg; it resembles a hollow ball, with the dividing cells forming a layer around a central cavity. As the blastocyst develops, a second mass of cells develops inside, allowing the distinction between "outer" and "inner" cell masses.
  12. The Kansas City Star, Sept.15, 2000, A/10.
  13. Pontifical Academy for Life, Declaration…on stem cells, p.8.
  14. Reported in May, Catholic Bioethics, p.215.
  15. Joseph Fletcher, Indicators of Humanhood: A Tentative Profile, "Hastings Center Report", 1972 (2), quoted in Rae-Cox, Bioethics, p.167.
  16. Meilaender, Bioethics, p.6.
  17. See Casey, How the Law…, pp.144-149.
  18. Gen. 1:26-27.
  19. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q.93.
  20. II Petr. 1:2, "partakers of the divine nature."
  21. See, for example, the works of Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse.
  22. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 29, Art. 3.
  23. Ashley-Moraczewski, Biological Subject, p.54.
  24. Aristotle developed his theory of the "triple soul," the succession of three souls in the [continue]
  1. [continued] human being, which manifest themselves as soon as the embryo has developed the physical structure to support their activity (see Leone, Ancient Roots, 31-32). In the absence of scientific evidence, the medieval philosophers still proposed such multiplicity and succession. St. Albert the Great, due to his scientific training, was obviously uneasy with a theory that did not seem to respect adequately the unity of the human being, making it appear as if it were "evolving" from one species into another, different species, and finally "becoming" human (see ibid., pp.39-42).
  2. Caturelli, Identity, p.334.
  3. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae, I, p.1.
  4. Pius XII (1944), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.53 (No.47).
  5. Pius XII (1952), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.398 (No.404).
  6. Pius XII (1944), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.53 (No.47).
  7. John Paul II (1987), in: Solesmes, Ethique, p.215.
  8. Pius XII (1952), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.197 (No.355).
  9. Prümmer, Manuale, II, 5.
  10. Psalm 23:1.
  11. Gen 1:26.
  12. Pius XII (1944), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.54 (No.32).
  13. Pius XII (1951), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.153 (No.254).
  14. Pius XII (1952), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.206 (No.376).
  15. These precisions were also used by Pope Pius XII to define and describe the relationships existing within the Mystical Body of Christ. See encyclical Mystici Corporis, June 29, 1943.
  16. Pius XII (1952), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.206 (No.377).
  17. Pius XII (1952), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.206 (No.377).
  18. Pius XII (1944), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.56 (No.52).
  19. Welty, Handbook, I, p.103.
  20. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.100, Art.6.
  21. Welty, Handbook, I, p.112.
  22. Welty, Handbook, I, p.101.
  23. Pius XII (1952), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.205 (No.373).
  24. Laguerie, Prélèvements, pp.96-97.
  25. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae.
  26. Pontifical Academy for Life, Declaration…on stem cells, p.8.
  27. Pius XII (1949), in: Solesmes, Human Body, pp.118-119 (No.177-179).
  28. Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Donum Vitae, Introd., n.4.
  29. Pius XII (1956), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.387 (No.656).
  30. Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Donum Vitae.
  31. Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Donum Vitae.
  32. Pius XII (1949), in: Solesmes, Human Body, p.118 (No.176).
  33. A forthcoming article will deal with the moral problem of what to do with the frozen embryos.
  34. Pontifical Academy for Life, Declaration…on stem cells, p.9.
  35. Meilaender, Bioethics.
  36. A Jewish-French intellectual, hovered many years close to conversion, guided by a famous Dominican friar, but finally died without taking the decisive step.
  37. Meilaender, Bioethics, p.8.
  38. National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
  39. Much of this paragraph is an adaptation of Rifkin, Algeny, p.244.

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