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Archive for October 2013

Pastoral Guidance on Stem Cell Therapy

To the members of the Union of Catholic Physicians in the Archdiocese of Lingayen Dagupan:

I am pleased to respond to your request for moral guidance regarding the medical issue of stem cell therapy. I especially commend you for seeking to learn more about the ethical dimensions in the practice of your profession. Please be assured of the Church’s guidance as teacher and mother in morality and faith.

The Catholic Church has always supported research for the cure of diseases throughout history. Pope Benedict XVI had said, “When science is applied to the alleviation of suffering and when it discovers on its way new resources, it shows two faces rich in humanity: through the sustained ingenuity invested in research, and through the benefit announced to all who are afflicted by sickness.”[1]

In the case of stem cell research the Church recognizes its potential to contribute to human flourishing through the development of treatments for debilitating and fatal diseases. As in all applications of science, the Church believes that stem research and the therapies that result from them should be guided by ethical norms to ensure that harm to human beings be avoided at every stage of life and that the formation of a just and compassionate society for all be fostered.

Generally, there is nothing that is morally objectionable with cell therapy.  As a matter of fact, any natural healing is a kind of stem cell therapy, as when a torn skin or muscles heals with the help of some other medical or surgical procedure.

There is nothing that is morally objectionable with stem cell therapy when somatic stem cells are used as sources or raw materials to help the diseased organ heal or replenish its lost component.  Example of this therapy is bone morrow transplant, cornea transplant, use of umbilical cord to develop cell lines, skin blood, fat and many others.

While the development of effective stem cell therapies is still an on-going process, the urgent desire of many persons to undergo such therapies for serious medical conditions has led to situations  where selfish and misguided interests have exposed vulnerable persons to exploitation and potential health hazards.

The dangers and potentials of stem cell therapies available in the Philippines have prompted the Church to provide pastoral guidelines for those procuring, providing, or regulating such therapies:

Stem cell research and therapies that use stem cells derived from human embryos or aborted fetuses should be rejected and prohibited. Such therapies abet directly or indirectly the practice of abortion.[2] It is not only morally objectionable, it is morally repugnant as the use of human embryo means killing a human being in order to save another human being.  We have always believed that a human embryo or fertilized ovum is a (complete) human being although in its primitive form.  Such human being or entity is irreplaceable and is always an end in himself.  Killing an embryo in any of its stage of development is killing a human being.  This makes it morally repugnant.

Caution is to be exercised with regard to stem cell research and therapies that use plant cells, animal cells, and genetically modified human stem cells. Rigorous scientific verification must be made to ensure that such therapies will not lead to harmful effects. Authorization must be obtained from proper authorities before such therapies are made available.

Stem cell research and therapies that use adult human stem cells and stem cells from umbilical cord blood are acceptable as long as they are proven safe and are approved by regulating bodies.

Clinical research trials should not be misrepresented as therapeutic stem cell treatments. Clinical research trials are intended to gather scientific data for developing future stem cell therapies. These trials do not guarantee cures and carry greater risks to participants than approved therapeutic treatments. Participation in these trials is voluntary and must not require payment. To charge payment is a violation of research ethics and an exploitation of research subjects. The protection of persons from harm and exploitation must prevail over the advancement of scientific research.

1)    Persons willing to undergo clinical trials or stem cell therapies must be given adequate and accurate information in order that they can make informed decisions about their participation or treatment. Information should include costs, risks, expected benefits, side-effects, duration, use of placebos, and probability of success/failure.

2)    Exaggerated or unproven claims of cures from stem cell therapies must be avoided to prevent raising false hopes among the desperately ill.

3)    Medical and government authorities must be vigilant against misrepresented, unapproved, and unregulated stem cell research and therapies.

The high cost of stem cell therapies should also give us cause to reflect about issues of solidarity and justice. While the restoration of health, alleviation of suffering, and prolongation of life are legitimate human pursuits, the fostering of an individualistic and market-driven system of health care hinders the formation of a society based on compassion and mutual care. Those who provide or procure expensive stem cell therapies cannot remain indifferent to the lack of basic health care among the poor. We deplore the lack of basic health services for the poor in government institutions. Vaccinations and basic health care facilities are hardly accorded to almost eight million Filipinos. We cannot allow the high cost of stem cell therapies to blind us to the cry of the sick and the poor.

In the spirit of solidarity and justice, those who benefit from stem cell therapies whether as medical practitioners or clients should also actively and concretely contribute to improving the health care of persons who are least in society.

From the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, Dagupan City, October 18, 2013, Feast of Saint Luke, Physician

+SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS

Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan

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[1] Benedict XVI, “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Participants in the Symposium on the Theme: ‘Stem Cells: What Future Therapy?’,  September 16, 2006, accessed September 25, 2013, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060916_pav_en.html

[1] Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life [Evangelium Vitae], no. 63.

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