Pharyngula

I suppose this is a kind of threat—an archaic and quaint threat, but I’m sure some people take it seriously—but the Catholic church has made a strong statement against embryonic stem cell research.

The Vatican stepped up its fight against embryonic stem cell research on Wednesday, saying that scientists involved in such work would be excommunicated.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Vatican department dealing with family affairs, said in a magazine interview that “destroying human embryos is equivalent to an abortion… it’s the same thing”.

“Excommunication applies to all women, doctors and researchers who eliminate embryos,” the cardinal told Catholic publication Famiglia Cristiana.

To which I can only weakly reply, “no, no, don’t drive scientists away from your religion, Catholics!” Bwahahahaha!

Anyway, do read the article. I thought that, while short, it was very informative about the political debate on stem cells in Italy, and actually summarized the situation fairly accurately and pithily.

Embryonic stem-cell research techniques involve destroying human embryos to extract their stem cells. Stem cells are ‘blank’ cells which have the ability to grow into any tissue of the body. Scientists think they could eventually be used to treat a host of ailments including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

The stem cells of very early embryos are preferred because they can become any kind of cell whereas adult stem cells are less flexible. Despite popular support, embryonic stem cell research is opposed by pro-life groups and many conservative lawmakers because the human embryo must be destroyed before its stem cells can be removed.

I’ve gotten so used to the way American journalists so readily fall for the false claim of the anti-choicers that adult stem cells are better than embryonic stem cells in all ways that I was surprised to see that more accurate short description in there.

Comments

  1. #1 DRG
    June 29, 2006

    I find it interesting that that Vatican will be excommunicating women who have miscarriages or otherwise lose a pregnancy, as they eliminate embryos naturally. Look forward to millions of women being banished from the church simply because they didn’t successfully carry a pregnancy. The Vatican needs to think these statements out a little better.

  2. #2 Caledonian
    June 29, 2006

    The Vatican needs to think these statements out a little better.

    If they did that, we’d never hear from them again. How would they govern a worldwide faith without making stupid statements?

  3. #3 quork
    June 29, 2006

    Vatican worried about positions on family

    VATICAN CITY – The Vatican is worried its opposition to abortion, embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage could one day land it before an international court of justice, a senior Vatican official said in an interview published Wednesday.
    .
    Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who heads the Pontifical Council for the Family, reiterated traditional Roman Catholic Church positions and criticized some European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands and France, for giving legal recognition to civil unions.
    .
    “We worry especially that, with current laws, speaking in defense of life and the rights of families is becoming in some societies sort of a crime against the state,” Lopez Trujillo told the Catholic news magazine Famiglia Cristiana for its issue scheduled to hit the stands Thursday. The remarks were posted online on Wednesday.

    Could someone explain to me how being against gay marriage is “speaking in defense of the rights of families”? How does opposition to granting rights to party A constitute defending the rights of party B? How would gay marriage in any way hurt heterosexual couples and their families? I just don’t get it.

  4. #4 quitter
    June 29, 2006

    Being against gay marriage is in defense of heterosexual marriage because red staters know how to keep a marriage together better than the rest of us. (*sarcasm*)

    Anyway, I am an ES cell researcher and I’ve worked with both ES cells and adult stem cells. The claim that adult stem cells are equivalent to ES cells is just an enormous lie. ES cell do everything and they do it relatively easily. Most adult stem cell lines I’ve studied and/or used were pretty pathetic, and most effects initially discovered in the field were probably from fusion of the adult stem cells to a differentiated cell. The best shot from adult stem cells are the new testicular stem cells that when cultured in LIF act like ES cells, but they haven’t been adequately studied yet, they may not be truly totipotent, or have the replicative potential (from telomere shortening) to be a realistic replacement. Also, we’d need to find a way to get them out of women.

  5. #5 DRG
    June 29, 2006

    I am not advocating that they actually make better statements, far from it. I would rather they keep making stupid remarks so that everyone can see the ridiculousness of the whole church institution. Basically everytime the church opens its mouth, lies and/or stupidity follow.

  6. #6 CaptainMike
    June 29, 2006

    “destroying human embryos is equivalent to an abortion… it’s the same thing”.

    Er…what? Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the embryos used in stem cell research already aborted? Isn’t that how they become available?

    The Cardinal seems to be saying that an aborted fetus is still potentially alive.

  7. #7 quitter
    June 29, 2006

    They are not “already aborted”, but excess embryos created from in vitro fertilization and destined for the incinerator.

    It all derives from the Catholic church’s immature and absurd definition of life beginning at conception. No one has made the biology clear to them that life does not begin. It began once, a billion or so years ago, and hasn’t stopped. The egg is alive, the sperm is alive, the embryo is alive, the fetus is alive etc. It’s just a question of when one should care. Apparently that Catholics used to believe that ensoulment occurred during the quickening, the first movements of infants in the womb was thought to be the soul entering the body. That was revised, of course, by the infallible guy in the stupid hat at some point. I’d love to see a good history of how they came up with this stupid ensoulment at conception idea, especially considering 50% of souls are then destined for the trash heap, making limbo full of human caviar.

    Pretty retarded if you ask me. I’ve heard much better definitions of when life should begin. For one, my dad’s belief is that life begins when the kids move out and the dog dies. I personally don’t believe you are a living human being until you’re no longer a teenager.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    June 29, 2006

    “You’re not a human being till you’re in my phone book.”
    —Bill Hicks

  9. #9 woofsterNY
    June 29, 2006

    The Vatican’s real conflict just clarified for me:

    Life after death vs. life after birth.

    Do you get to exist NOW, fully and independently as a living human being, with science and reason as your traveling mates, as long and as healthily as you can make it?

    Or do you force yourself to defer it all, to cramp down and shorten every aspect of your miserable life at the command of the wealthy drones of the Catholic Church, in return for a promised glory land LATER … after you die?

    I’m hoping those soon-to-be-excommunicated scientists will ask themselves:

    “Which is more in line with my real beliefs — to sit back and pray for the sick and dying? OR to find a way to heal them?”

    “… and do I even WANT to belong to a church that threatens me with expulsion for being true to my highest values?”

  10. #10 PaulC
    June 29, 2006

    Has the Catholic church announced a similar penalty for those involved in IVF clinics, which routinely destroy embryos? In principle, the church’s stance on the matter is consistent, but this is the first I heard about actually going forward with excommunication. It would be simple enough to generalize it to anyone involved in the intentional destruction of an embryo, so why would the language be restricted to stem cell researchers, who are only a tiny minority of those involved?

  11. #11 quork
    June 29, 2006

    I expect that Real Soon Now the Catholic Church will threaten to excommunicate everyone involved with application of the death penalty, including politicians, judges, jury members and executioners.

    Actually, I dont’ expect that. It would be consistent.

  12. #12 diegopig
    June 29, 2006

    Being born and living in Italy, I hope to give some insight on the situation here.

    This funny guy, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, some times ago signed and published on behalf of the Vatican Council for Family, a document entitled “Family and human reproduction”.
    In this document, which was dedicated to the Pope BUT NOT SIGNED by him, Alfie wrote (among other things) that “the families that have only two childer are sterile”.

    Now, you have to understand that here, in Italy, in the land of the Pope, nobody cares about the Vatican.
    We have sex (premarital sex!), we use condoms, we don’t “hate fags” and so on.
    We have a good abortion law, and abortion are performed in public hospitals.
    This abortion law was subjected to a referendum, many years ago, and it was confirmed by almost 80% of those who voted.
    I think italian’s behavior and dislike for “absolute truths” came from the fact that, during our history, we have been fucked by so many different invasors, each with his own set of rules.

    So, where Alfie and company speak such bullshits, very few cares.
    And this is because many have now understood how nazist the Vatican has become.
    Maybe you don’t know, for example, that gay people are not allow to attend the seminary, which is the “school” leading to become a priest.
    And this is true not only if someone have homosexsual practice or if someone support “gay culture” (?), but even if someone is gay but agree to not have sex.

    Now, we you discriminate someone not because of what he does but because of what he is, you’re a nazi.

    So, Vatican is loosing public support very fast, here.
    It have a lot of power, but very little public support.

    So my impression is that these Alfie’s bullshits are just “public opinion’s test”. Someone in Vatican want to know how hard to push to get people’s souls and money.

    Here in Italy, Italian government give to Vatican something like 900 Millions Euro (taxpayer’s euro) every year.

  13. #13 george
    June 29, 2006

    Not to defend the Catholic churh – in which tranditions I was raised – but they are consistent. They define (believe) human life to start at fertilization (conception). They also object to the death penalty – unlike other hypocritical quote pro-life unquote Christians. So I do appreciate their consistency.

    So this is their club, they define their rules for membership. I am with PZ, I suspect they continue to push more folks out of the church with these silly positions.

    For argument: when does human life start? I accept it as already started by birth, but not at fertilization. My personal dilemma is to determine where does it start between those two points.

  14. #14 duquesne_pdx
    June 29, 2006

    Despite popular support, embryonic stem cell research is opposed by pro-life groups and many conservative lawmakers because the human embryo must be destroyed before its stem cells can be removed.

    That’s kind of an inflammatory phrasing, IMO.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but these embryos are still undifferentiated cell groupings (~1-2 weeks invitro). They are bound for the incinerator already, as no one wants/needs them. Didn’t the cathaholic church already issue an okay to dispose of the unwanted ones? What’s the deal with using cells from them before they get tossed?

    Stupid fundies.

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    June 29, 2006

    quitter: I’d love to see a good history of how they came up with this stupid ensoulment at conception idea…

    Catholics for a Free Choice has published some excellent studies on this, though this < http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/pubs/kissling/articles/1988religionandabortionlostinthepelviczone.asp> is all I could find on their website:

    … there is no doctrinal position on personhood within the church.

    For example, in the early centuries of the church, St. Augustine addressed the question of abortion. He asserted that abortion was always evil, but was clear to say that abortion could not be considered homicide, if it occurred prior to the point in which the fetus was fully formed.

    Later, St. Thomas Aquinas dealt with the question of ensoulment, when the soul enters the body. He drew much of his theology from the philosophy of the Greeks and thought that there were three stages of ensoulment in the fetus. First there was a vegetative soul, then there was an animal soul, and finally there was a human soul. And he further held that if the fetus were male it reached that stage of human soul 40 days after conception, and if it were female, it reached the stage of a human soul 80 days after conception.

    … the church … may favor one [theory] over another at different times in history, but has always acknowledged, even up to our time, that we do not know when this moment of ensoulment actually occurs.

    I’ve also seen statements that this “40 days” idea is in the Torah, but haven’t gone digging to confirm that.

  16. #16 Pierce R. Butler
    June 29, 2006

    Oops: somehow the scienceblogs software deleted the URL for the above Catholics for a Free Choice quotation: http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/pubs/kissling/articles/1988religionandabortionlostinthepelviczone.asp

  17. #17 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    By statistic, in the USA, the Catholics lose more members than any other denomination. They only gain members in places like Africa.

    Now some of this is competition for sure but I for one am glad to see the Catholics exposed more for what they really are. They are certainly not pro-science just because they ‘accept’ evolution. They shouldn’t get any more credit than your average fundie.

  18. #18 PaulC
    June 29, 2006

    Chance:

    They are certainly not pro-science just because they ‘accept’ evolution. They shouldn’t get any more credit than your average fundie.

    I’m biased as someone who was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school through 12th grade, but I have to disagree here.

    The Catholic church attempts to police its own members, which it’s entitled to do. In fact, “excommunication” is merely a formal statement of saying that you are no longer a Catholic. While this can be devastating to a believing Catholic, it cannot be used to exert influence over anyone else. Unlike American evangelicals, the Catholic church does not attempt to exert influence over public education. Unlike American evangelicals, most Catholic high schools will provide you with a decent biology course taught by someone who understands evolution and acknowledges it as a fact (at least, this was true in the 1980s; I suppose things could have changed but I don’t see why).

    I agree that the Catholic church is not “pro-science” in some generic sense, and that a lot of Catholic dogma surely violates any reasonable application of Occam’s razor. But is it as pernicious an influence on science education as American evangelicalism? In practice, I see little evidence that this is the case.

  19. #19 Judy L., Toronto
    June 29, 2006

    The argument of “when does life begin” is specious: the real question, and one that anti-science-and-reproductive-choice advocates try to side-step because it reveals their general hypocrisy, is “when is it okay to destroy or kill a living thing or living tissue?” Typically, these religious right-wingnuts have no problem with state-sanctioned execution and waging murderous invasions of other countries, but heaven-forbid a totipotent stem cell should be prevented from developing into a live human being whose “soul” they can save and whose income they can tithe.

    I would love to live in a world where I could donate some spare ova to a research institution for the purposes of creating embryos that would be destroyed to create stem cell lines. We can be live organ donors for organs that we don’t need two of (like kidneys) and we can donate blood, so why not those unfertilized ovas that are going down the drain each month?

    Oh, and in answer to the question about how heteros are hurt by gay marriage: it goes a little something like this: people who hate homos think that homosexual relationships and homosexuals are of less value than hetero relationship and straight folks…therefore, if you give homos the same rights as straight folks, it tells the straight folks that they and their relationships are of no greater value, and it pisses them off to be told that they are not morally and socially superior. That’s why some less-fanatical homo-haters will support “civil unions” for gays while reserving regular “marriage” for straight folks — it gives the pretense that they’re not bigots opposed to equal civil rights for homosexuals while clearly asserting that homos and their relationships are second-class — equal, but LESS equal.

    PZ – hey, maybe you should run a piece on stem cells, educating us all on the differences between totipotent, pluripotent, and multipotent stem cells. I’m sure we would all love to hear about how the governments of Canada and the U.S. are severely restricting stem cell research, and ruining our chances of finding treatments and cures for deadly diseases and disabling injuries, and driving our home-grown scientists into Foreign Labs so they can do this kind of work.

  20. #20 rtwagner
    June 29, 2006

    I would also like to hear more from PZ regarding embryonic stem cells, but the quick and the dirty is such; The ES cell lines that are available are not totipotent cell lines. Totipotent cell lines can give rise to any embryonic and extraembryonic (placental) lineage. A totipotent cell line would have to be derived from a 2-8 cell embryo which would be extremely difficult. Any later than that and the trophectodermal lineage will have been specified (outer layer of the morula) The ES cell lines that exist are derived from the inner cell mass of blastocysts, or from even later in development at the epiblast stage of development. Because they can still give rise to any embryonic lineage they are characterized as pluripotent. Multipotent stem cells really only describes adult stem cells such as hematopoietic stem cells, that is all a bit more controversial.

  21. #21 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    I think your missing my point Paul, I wasn’t talking about their political actions in education but rather the thought that because theya ccept evolution they are more accomadating to science.

    I just don’t see it.

  22. #22 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    I think your missing my point Paul, I wasn’t talking about their political actions in education but rather the thought that because they accept evolution they are more accomadating to science.

    I just don’t see it.

    And why anyone would wish to belong to an organization that ‘polices’ what one can and cannot do/think just because one was born into it is beyond me.

  23. #23 PaulC
    June 29, 2006

    Chance: I think I may have overgeneralized your statement “They shouldn’t get any more credit than your average fundie.” to a general claim of equivalence, which is what I was disputing.

    Even in terms of generally being “accomodating to science” I probably disagree. I think that in practice, Catholic belief allows a more ready compartmentalization between scientific thinking and religious belief. Catholic doctrine is more likely to be unfalsifiable. E.g., as far as I can tell the Catholic definition of biblical inerrancy is that the Bible says exactly what God meant for it to say (in sort of Lewis Carroll tautological way) but not that what it says can be taken literally. The doctrine of transubstantiation holds that bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, but not that there can be any way to go about detecting it.

    I think it is difficult to be a Catholic scientist because you have to go through all these mental hoops in obvious violation of Occam’s razor. But provided you are selective, you can do it. An evangelical faith based on biblical literalism really rules out entire branches of science in a way that Catholicism does not.

  24. #24 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    PaulC,

    You amy be correct, you may not be about catholic doctrine being more amenable. But after thinking about this further I’m not sure the evangelicals are doing more ahrm with their stance.

    Here you have a group that is, by threat to it’s members, quite literally trying to stop scientific progress. I simply don’t see this as being any better than what fundies do when they try to take over school boards.

    And should we doubt that if the Vatican had any power anymore that it would pursue avenues outside of threats?

    oh and

    The doctrine of transubstantiation holds that bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, but not that there can be any way to go about detecting it.

    I don’t see this beyond the reach of the scientific method.

  25. #25 M
    June 29, 2006

    Oh, no! Oh, horror of horrors! Oh, wait…I’m Jewish. And nonpractising at that! Hah!

  26. #26 CaptainMike
    June 29, 2006

    Quitter,

    Thanks for the correction. I don’t know where I got the idea that embryonic stem cells used in research came from aborted babies, but at least now I know better.

    Knowing this actually makes the Cardinal’s position seem slightly less stupid. Still dumb though.

  27. #27 tacitus
    June 29, 2006

    quitter:
    The claim that adult stem cells are equivalent to ES cells is just an enormous lie. ES cell do everything and they do it relatively easily. Most adult stem cell lines I’ve studied and/or used were pretty pathetic, and most effects initially discovered in the field were probably from fusion of the adult stem cells to a differentiated cell.

    So why do the opponents of ES cell research get away with saying that? They claim that there are already treatments using adult stem cells while there is none yet for embryonic stem cells. Is that patently untrue or just a distortion of the real situation. Have there been experiments/trials where adult stem cells have worked better than embryonic stem cells?

    If we ever manage to find a cure for something like Alzheimer’s using embryonic stem cells, I wonder how many catholics would be willing to forego treatment on principle. Not many, I’d wager.

  28. #28 george
    June 29, 2006

    Keep in mind that official Catholic views on embryonic stem cells is consistent with their view on life altogether. They do not support extracting eggs for in vitro fertilization thus even putting these excess embryos at risk for disposal. So the argument of why not use them is not relevant as they do not support making them in the first place.

    All this said, this is silly as there is no reasonable scientific basis to consider a fertilized human egg a fully vested member of society. The Catholic Church needs to modernize their views on this to align with the scientific reality. They have gotten there on evolution somehow, perhaps they can get there on this topic as well.

    But the question remains, at what point and on what scientific basis does society vest a new person into the society with all our – oft bungled – attempts to protect them as an individual including protection from their parents. I really do not want this decision made on religious grounds – to combat that we need a good answer to this question.

  29. #29 theRidger
    June 29, 2006

    Unless they’ve changed radically recently, the Catholic Church has declared in vitro morally wrong and impermissable for Catholic couples, so no, they aren’t okay with tossing the unwanted embryos.

    I think we should readopt Willis’s notion (from the 17th century!) that the “soul” (whatever you mean by that) is put by God (whatever you mean by that) into the fetus when the brain is sufficiently advanced to contain it. That would be pretty late. It seems reasonable to me.

  30. #30 quitter
    June 29, 2006

    Tacitus said:

    So why do the opponents of ES cell research get away with saying that? They claim that there are already treatments using adult stem cells while there is none yet for embryonic stem cells. Is that patently untrue or just a distortion of the real situation. Have there been experiments/trials where adult stem cells have worked better than embryonic stem cells?

    Technically this is true. The most obvious time adult stem cells are used in a treatment is in bone marrow transplantation. It is the hematopoietic stem cells in the marrow that lead to the formation of healthy blood in the recipient.

    The issue they are trying to confuse with this statement is whether adult stem cells can transdifferentiate to generate tissues that they ordinarily wouldn’t turn into. For instance, making a hematopoietic (aka blood) stem cell make liver, or pancreas etc., rather than just making blood. Now ES cells do this automatically, you don’t even need to treat them to get them to make all sorts of tisses, you just need to aggregate them and remove the anti-differentiation factors used to keep them as stem cells. Adult stem cells were initially thought to be very plastic as well, that is various drug treatments might make them turn into a new kind of cell. However, subsequent studies show their potential to do this is very limited and might have been a false result. Sometimes the cells would just stick to a differentiated cell and fuse with it, making it appear to change phenotype, when in reality it was just two cells stuck together.

    Hope that makes it clear.

    Right now there are several adult stem cell sources. Some are quite promising, such as the testicular stem cells I alluded to before, but none are as powerful as the ES cells are without any modification whatsoever.

  31. #31 The Amazing Kim
    June 30, 2006

    If we ever manage to find a cure for something like Alzheimer’s using embryonic stem cells, I wonder how many catholics would be willing to forego treatment on principle.

    It’s more common than you would think, and it causes a lot of angst in the hospital system. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, often refuse blood transfers, even in emergencies. The idea of taking a pig’s heart in lieu of a human donated one is abhorrent to some Jewish people. And scientology. Oh, scientology. You can imagine the grief this causes the emergency staff. People can be very stubborn about their beliefs when they want to be. When the wishes of the patient conflict with the doctors’ preferred course of treatment there’s a huge legal and ethical quandry. It can take years to resolve and leave everyone worse off.

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