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The Roman Catholic Church and embryonic stem cells
  1. P S Copland
  1. PO Box 913, Dunedin, New Zealand;

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    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 a specific interpretation of our empirical observations of human development. It is the Church’s interpretation of the biology of early human development that is foundational to their current stand against experimentation on early embryos. However one of the reasons we may wish to experiment on early embryos is that we know surprisingly little about them. In fact any position that claims to be based on a solid, empirical understanding of the embryo is essentially misleading, as we simply do not have the data available. The reply to this will inevitably be that we know enough about embryos to make certain claims. For example the Roman Catholic Church likes to point out that the early embryo is obviously the earliest stage of a human life, and thus attributes to it many of the rights associated with actual people.4 Many would disagree with this on the grounds that the Church has confused being merely human with being a person. I am concerned by the claim that the early embryo is obviously the early stages of a human life.4

    My concern is not that the claim isn’t obvious to some people but that obviousness is a dangerous thing when it comes to science. It is, for example, quite obvious to me that I am currently sitting at my desk. Empirically my senses seem to confirm that I am more or less stationary. I may well believe that I am stationary. For much of human history we believed the earth to be stationary at the centre of the universe. This assumption was confirmed in the Western world by the Church itself. Church doctrine confirmed that the earth was the stationary centre of the universe with the heavens above and hell below. When Galileo challenged this view by promoting the sun centred Copernican system of cosmology the Roman Catholic Church attempted to silence him. The Church’s attack on Galileo and Copernicanism was tripartite. Firstly, the Copernican system appeared to contradict some scriptures. Secondly, the Copernican system contradicted the church sanctioned science of the day represented by Aristotelian physics. Thirdly, was the appeal to obviousness or the immediate evidence of the senses. Of the three, only the scriptural objections were fundamentally doctrinal in nature. The appeals to science and obviousness were able to be settled by empirical evidence. We now know that we are not stationary at the centre of the universe although this is still far from obvious to many people.

    Any position that claims to be based on a solid, empirical understanding of the embryo is misleading: we simply do not have the data

    The situation 400 years ago regarding Copernicanism thus seems to be very similar to that today regarding the status of the early embryo. The Roman Catholic Church tried to prevent Galileo from collecting empirical evidence using his telescope and disseminating his empirical evidence by banning his books. Similarly the Church today has attempted to prevent the gathering of empirical data on the early embryo by promoting a ban on all experimentation on early embryos.

    The Copernican revolution itself has become a paradigm for the process of theory change in science. Science is not simply a collection of results from experiments (or facts) but perhaps more importantly science is the interpretation of those results and the planning of further experiments. For all its claims of objectivity science is, so the philosophers of science tell us, essentially a theoretical construct. The practical and theoretical sides of science are of course intimately connected. In fact it is well known that a researcher’s actions and observations are most likely guided to some degree by their own hopes and expectations. These same researchers develop the theories that they use to interpret their data. These theories fit the results (or facts) that have been previously observed and predict new experiments to be done. The role of theory at this stage of the process is often underestimated. Theories do not fall out of results. In fact in biology especially theories are often essential to making sense of what is signal (result) and what is noise (artefact). Theory then is not just a bridge to the next fact or experiment but arguably the very heart and soul of science. Theories that do not fit the facts are of no use and should be discarded. But in biology especially, theories can define what counts as a fact and what does not. Sooner or later a startling new observation is made that cannot be accommodated within the existing theoretical framework. New theories are developed and past observations are recategorised. What was written off as noise is heralded as fact. Thomas Kuhn called this a paradigm shift and his paradigmatic case was the Copernican revolution.5 One overarching theoretical construct is replaced with another—our understanding of the world is literally changed forever.

    A problem arises when an organisation such as the Roman Catholic Church erects its doctrinal structure on the shaky foundations of a specific theoretical construct. Biology and developmental biology in particular are comparatively young sciences that are progressing rapidly and are thus quite theoretically diverse. By lending its support to a certain theory or position within biology the Church may well be able to distort the natural balance that exists in science whereby theories are valued for their explanatory power or instrumental use, not their doctrinal compatibility. External interest groups with political lobbying power may thus hijack the delicate process of progress in science with dire consequences for future advancement in science and medicine. The Roman Catholic Church’s influence on science is indirect and usually through the medium of public opinion and public policy. As we have seen in the American debate over the status of the embryo with regards to the derivation of embryonic stem cells this influence may be decisive in the formation of public policy. Indeed President Bush’s decision to effectively ban public funding of embryonic stem cell research in America is widely believed to have set back progress in the field worldwide by many years.6

    The Roman Catholic Church’s input into the embryonic stem cell debate has not been simply moral or ethical as one might assume but has openly defended a particular claim about the biology of the early embryo. Given the basic lack of empirical evidence regarding the embryo and such developments as the unexpected properties of stem cells the Roman Catholic Church’s choice of position on the biology of the embryo seems to be chosen solely as a prop for its doctrinal position. This prop has then been introduced into the secular debate on the status of the embryo as a somehow obvious empirical claim.

    I believe the Church’s religious fervour for its preferred doctrinal and scientific position of the day is fundamentally at odds with the process and progress of science. Science is an exploration of the physical world that is characterised by continual advancement and, historically at least, major shifts in understanding. Over the last 400 years the Roman Catholic Church has been slow to accept that science progresses at all and has preferred to maintain its doctrinal position as a matter of faith even when it has been shown to be empirically unsound. My concern here is I think similar to that of Skene and Parker. The Roman Catholic Church’s contributions to public policy are based not only on their moral or ethical principles, but on an effectively arbitrary and dogmatic application of those principles that is backed by the full force of what is effectively a very powerful lobby group in many countries.

    Like Skene and Parker, I have no answer to the problems I have raised. Historically one thing is certain, in the future the Roman Catholic Church’s current position on the embryo will be judged to have been right or wrong with the wisdom of hindsight. Just as we judge the Church’s persecution of Galileo almost 400 years ago now.