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J Med Ethics 30:607-608 doi:10.1136/jme.2002.002600
  • Letter

The Roman Catholic Church and embryonic stem cells

  1. P S Copland
  1. PO Box 913, Dunedin, New Zealand; paul_c@sanger.otago.ac.nz
    • Accepted 1 July 2003

    Skene and Parker1 raise a number of concerns about religious doctrine unduly influencing law and public policy through amicus curiae contributions to civil litigations or direct lobbying of politicians. Oakley2 picks this up in the same issue with an emphasis on the Roman Catholic Church’s interest in preventing the destruction of embryos for embryonic stem cell research. Skene, Parker, and Oakley seem to be concerned mostly with religious views having undue influence on public policy. My concern is the negative effect that such Church influenced public policy may have on the progress of the biomedical research that is itself foundational to the debate. Oakley seems to be particularly incensed that, as he puts it: “Those who support a total ban on embryonic stem cell research sometimes talk as if theirs are the only views based on moral principle”.2 What seems to be at issue here though are not the moral principles of the sanctity and dignity of human life, but the application of those moral principles to biomedical research.

    The Roman Catholic Church has historically defended the sanctity and dignity of human life to varying degrees at different times. Human life for much of the past 2000 years was defined by the Church as the presence of the soul, which was thought at different times to appear at various different stages during development. Only recently, with the advent of modern biology, has the Roman Catholic Church shifted its position to claim that the fertilised egg also qualifies as the right sort of human life.3 It should be noted that this doctrinal change was fundamentally driven by developments in our understanding of embryology and not the process of ensoulment.

    The Church’s current position on the embryo is thus based not solely on Church doctrine but also on …