The embryonic stem cell and human cloning research debates are not “science” arguments, but rather, disputes over proper ethics in the pursuit of science. Supporters of ESCR think it isn’t wrong to destroy embryos for use in research. Opponents, disagree and also suggest that it would be great if ways were found to obtain the scientific benefits of embryo-based technologies without the destruction — or in cloning’s case, manufacture and destruction — of nascent human life.

Seems a no-brainer to me. But bioethicist Art Caplan claims that it is wrong for “science and religion” to mix.

He writes about a disputed finding by a Polish scientist, who claimed at a Vatican meeting on stem cell research, to have found pluripotent stem cells in bone marrow. (Pluripotent stem cells can be turned into any tissue in the body.) Caplan reports that Church leaders were thrilled and so funded the research. From, “Failed Search for Controversial Cells Shows Danger of Mixing Science, Religion”

One of the strangest moments at the conference came when Polish-born researcher Mariusz Z. Ratajczak, now on the faculty at the University of Louisville, stood up and told the enthralled bishops, priests, monsignors, cardinals, theologians, and the few other odd ducks like me that he had found very tiny cells residing in adult cells that behaved just like embryos. Ratajczak said they could develop into all manner of other cells, thereby acting as natural repair kits, given the right conditions and genetic tweaking.

The theologians were delighted. They were so excited that they took the unprecedented step of investing the church’s money in a company, Neostem, to help develop Ratajczak’s discovery. His VSELS would provide an ethical way to use stem cells to cure disease while getting the Church out of a horrible bind—condemning embryo destruction for obtaining stem cells while so many worldwide suffered premature death and serious disability.

But other scientists haven’t been able to replicate the finding, casting significant doubt on the work. Caplan criticizes the Catholic Church for having supported the research at all:

Science and religion do not usually mix. But when they do and when the power of religion is used to cheer for a particular research strategy not because of evidence but because of morality that creates a huge potential for trouble. Until someone other then those tied to the power of VSELS for religious or business reasons can find them, be wary of any claims about their power to heal. It is persuading one’s scientific peers, not priests, rabbis, imams and ministers, that is the key to progress in medicine and science.

I’m sorry, and maybe I am just obtuse, but what is the problem?

Nobody supports naked science, that is science conducted without ethical parameters. Art Caplan certainly doesn’t, evidenced by his righteous advocacy for maintaining proper boundaries in organ transplant medicine. Particularly when it involves human life, people just disagree on where the ethical lines should be drawn.

Moreover, before going into clinical use, the Catholic Church’s funded research would — and should — have to demonstrate its scientific merit. That’s the very process that has been ongoing. It apparently can’t. That’s the way the science cookie crumbles.

But look at this: Shinya Yamanaka did the very same thing that the Polish researcher was attempting — pursued research into finding pluripotent stem cells without destroying embryos — because of his ethical sensibilities. Indeed, Yamanaka pursued his research because when he looked at an embryo through a microscope at a stem cell laboratory, he thought of his daughters.

In contrast to the bone marrow work, Yamanaka’s research — which again, was driven by his ethical perspectives — succeeded. He invented induced pluripotent stem cells and won a Nobel Prize for his efforts!

Perhaps someone can explain why Yamanaka’s efforts are pro science, while the Catholic Church’s funding of a different approach seeking to reach the same scientific/ethical goals is imposing religion on science. Both avenues were driven by an ethical concern for the importance of human life, even at its most nascent stage. Both had to prove their scientific mettle. One succeeded, the other didn’t. But that’s the nature of science.

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Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC
Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC