What is the Church’s Position on Stem Cell Research?

For a number of years, there has been a bit of euphoria about stem cell research because it brings a promise of treating various diseases, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and others.  Stem cells may also be used to replace worn-out, or damaged cells, including blood cells. The shortage of organs for transplantation has stimulated stem cell research as a potential source for cell-based therapy in regenerative medicine.

The cellular activities of stem cells are different from normal cells.

During the division of a normal specific cell, the so called “daughter cells’ follow exactly the make-up of their “mother cells.” For example, a brain cell can only develop into another brain cell and not another specific cell like muscle, skin, liver, brain or heart cells.

This normal development of specific cells is not the case of stem cells.   Stem cells are special and undifferentiated.  This means that these cells do not have characteristics of its future specific type. They can be programmed to develop into a particular body cell, like those located in the blood, heart, skin or muscles.

Stem cells research focuses on two main sources:

  1. The human tissues (also called somatic or adult stem cell), which is derived from a patient’s own tissues. As a point of clarification, adult stem cells are called adult, not because they are found only in adults, but because they are found in mature tissues; and
  2. Human embryos, which are taken from induced abortions or those that were called “leftover” embryos during the process of in-vitro fertilization.

Is the Church against all forms of stem cell research?

The answer is No.  The Church does not stand in the way of technological and medical development. In fact, many pioneering scientific research initiatives in the world are conducted by Catholic universities and institutions.  The Church cooperates in any public endeavor that improves health and diminishes the sufferings of the population.

However, the Church also makes sure that scientific research does not destroy human life. The Church does not argue with stem cell research derived from those morally acceptable sources.  According to the Institute of Catholic Bioethics of Saint Joseph University, “Most types of stem cell research (especially adult stem cell research) and morally acceptable forms of  Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) are encouraged. Stem cells can be derived from these morally acceptable sources: Embryonic Germ Cells (from miscarriages or spontaneous abortions and not elective abortions), Umbilical Cord Stem Cells, Placenta-derived Stem Cells, Post-Natally Derived (Adult) Stem cells, De-Differentiation Strategies (provided it doesn’t go so far as to make a human embryo), and Reprogramming Strategies (as long it generates a distinctly non-embryonic entity).”[1]

The Church is against embryonic stem cell  research.

The Church’s position of ESCR is spelled out in its teaching entitled Donum Vitae, which declares that “ Medical research must refrain from operation on live embryos, unless there is a moral certainty of not causing harm to the life or integrity of the unborn child and the mother, and on condition that the parents have given their free and informed consent to the procedure (no. 5).”[2]

As the word implies, embryonic stem cells are taken from a newly formed zygote (embryo), around 4-6 days. Scientists are interested in these types of cells because they claim that the zygote stem cells can develop into different kinds of body cells. Billions of specialized cells from the fetus can be specialized to make up tissues. However, in order to harvest the embryo to be used for research and medical purposes, the zygote must be destroyed, including those that are taken from the so called leftover embryos in fertility clinics. The zygote has life. The Church believes that life begins at conception, when the ovum and sperm meet together to form the fetus.[3]

There is also a practical difficulty with ESCR aside from its moral controversy.

According to University of Wisconsin scientist James Thomson, “Obstacles include learning how to grow the cells into all types of organs and tissue and then making sure cancer and other defects are not introduced during the transplantation.”[4] In addition, many studies argue that in contrast to ESCRs, “stem cells from more mature tissues can be more easily immune-matched to patients because cells taken from a patient’s own tissues are a perfect match and those from birth-associated tissues are widely compatible. Since adult stem cells can be derived from a patient’s own tissues, they can be safely transplanted to patients.”[5] There also are studies showing the potential of adult stem cells developing into different cell types. [6]

According to Dr. Maureen Condic, a researcher and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, “More than 1,500 clinical studies are currently underway, testing the medical usefulness of adult stem cells for diverse medical conditions. In contrast, in the quarter century since their discovery, not a single clinical study has been approved for ESCRs, due to the serious safety concerns.”[7]

Adult stem cells could promise a productive research outcome without compromising another life.  A set of ethical principles regarding human experimentation developed by the World Medical Association, called the Declaration of Helsinki, noted that special protection of research populations, including those who cannot give consent for themselves, should be applied.  This principle clearly covers the unborn.

We cannot destroy life to pursue a promise of discovery to cure diseases that beset humankind.


[1] Institute of Catholic Bioethics,  Is the Church Against All Forms of Stem Cell Research?, available at https://sites.sju.edu/icb/.

[2]Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, as cited by Institute of Catholic Bioethics: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19870222_respect-for-human-life_en.html

[3] Antony Fisher, Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium, (London: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p131.

[4] Associated Press reporter Ryan J. Foley “Stem cell pioneer warns of roadblocks before cures,” San Jose Mercury News Online, posted on Feb. 8, 2007, http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/16656570.htm as cited by USCCB: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/stem-cell-research/embryonic-stem-cells/practical-problems-with-embryonic-stem-cells.cfm.

[5] Maureen L. Condic, PhD , Stem Cells and Hope for Patients. Secretariat of Pro Life Activities, USCCB, available at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/stem-cell-research/upload/Stem-Cells-and-Hope-for-Patients.pdf

[6] An example of a studies on the pluripotency of adult stem cell: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867407014717; https://www.intechopen.com/books/pluripotent-stem-cells/pluripotent-adult-stem-cells-a-potential-revolution-in-regenerative-medicine-and-tissue-engineering

[7] Maureen Condi, PhD.


Cover Illustration taken from PEXELS, available at https://www.pexels.com/search/LABORATORY/

One comment


    Chapter V, Section IIIb., para 236:
    From an ethical point of view, the simple replication of normal cells or of a portion of DNA presents no
    particular ethical problem. Very different, however, is the Magisterium’s judgment on cloning understood
    in the proper sense. Such cloning is contrary to the dignity of human procreation because it takes place in
    total absence of an act of personal love between spouses, being agamic and asexual reproduction[534]. In
    the second place, this type of reproduction represents a form of total domination over the reproduced
    individual on the part of the one reproducing it[535]. The fact that cloning is used to create embryos from
    which cells can be removed for therapeutic use does not attenuate its moral gravity, because in order that
    such cells may be removed the embryo must first be created and then destroyed[536].


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