Stem Cells, by Norman M. Ford and Michael Herbert

Stem Cells, by Norman M. Ford and Michael Herbert

Kerrie Allen

by Norman M. Ford & Michael Herbert
(St Paul's Publications, 2003, 111pp, $19.95. Can be ordered through AD Books)

Father Norman Ford SDB, Catholic priest and bioethicist, has been criticised for making questionable comments, e.g., the idea that human beings in their early embryonic stage are only "potential persons" (The Prenatal Person); or for saying: "A conscience is said to be certain when the individual believes his judgment to be true without any reasonable fear of error" (Live Out the Truth in Love).

But Fr Ford is also known for publicly speaking the truth too. During an IVF debate on the ABC religion program Compass ("Family Matters", August, 2001) he said: "The way God made our nature male and female, the child is to arise from the context of the intimacy of love in a sexual union".

And later: "Human cells are the stuff of human life. They are embryos. They are the beginnings of the individual and I'm afraid that there's a blind spot in this area and the scientists involved in this don't realise that they are dealing with human life, that they're dealing with human embryos that have a dignity and value of their own".

This last statement of his is to be applauded, particularly in light of the current call from many Australian scientists, politicians and people with disabilities for a lifting of the prohibition on human cloning and use of human embryos for research.

We should be very concerned about this proposed direction in science, and it is reason enough for us to read the latest book by Father Ford and Michael Herbert.

Father Ford is director of Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics, and Michael Herbert is a scientist who works for Father Ford, and who formerly worked at the Institute for Reproduction and Development, Monash University.

This book makes for stimulating reading. It sets out to help laypeople meet scientists at their level by providing information about the processes and research findings so far of different types of stem cell research (namely adult, umbilical cord blood, foetal stem cells, and embryonic stem cells), and what the future may be for stem cell therapies.

Legal and ethical

The legal and ethical aspects of stem cell research are addressed, and current Australian and international legislation is examined. Father Ford writes: "The information required for forming a considered view of these matters from a Catholic Christian perspective is given".

The question of "what is an embryo?" is addressed from the outset. The stages of early human development are clearly presented with definitions to help the non-scientist. A fertilised egg is totipotent (meaning its potential is total), and if placed in a woman's uterus has the potential to develop into a foetus.

The language of "potential human" has, as noted, been a cause for concern among many Christians. It appears from this book, that when the term "potential" is used, it is not denying the humanity of the embryo by meaning a "potential" person literally, but rather indicating that the embryo has the potential to continue growing.

In some cases it may not grow, but the mere fact that it has potential to grow means that it is a life from conception. The authors make it clear that a human embryo as a totipotent cell "has the inherent potential to continue organised human development in a suitable environment".

It is important to realise, however, that many scientists seek to manipulate language in order to convince society that their work is legitimate, e.g., (i) Cloning has the new term "somatic cell nuclear transfer"; (ii) Cloning is also broken into two types - "reproductive cloning" which aims to elicit horror at the thought of clones being created and born, and "therapeutic cloning" which although it is no different from reproductive cloning, aims to hide cloning under the guise of altruistic science for cures; and (iii) Embryos are classified into two stages of development and thus life - "potential human" - meaning the same as defined by Father Ford, and "possible human" being the embryo until implantation and continued pregnancy. "Possible human" allows scientists to seek to justify killing an embryo up to 14 days of life.

In the concluding chapter, Father Ford draws upon the teaching of the Catholic Church from biblical, theological and philosophical writings, including those of John Paul II. He also informs us of the views of secular ethicists such as Peter Singer and Julian Savulescu, concluding that "there is no ethical justification for making laws to authorise destruction of 'spare' IVF embryos or cloned human embryos to obtain ES cells for 'therapeutic purposes'." Public funds, he stresses, should be focussed upon stem cell therapies that include adult, cord blood, placental and recently deceased foetuses.

The comment in the front of the book is by Professor John Hearn, Australian National University. While he is to be applauded for his comment that Stem Cells is timely, balanced and clear, he reflects the views of those subscribing to "relativism" when he says that ethical and legal frameworks should have flexibility for review as they may change with science.

As far as Catholics and all of the Judeo-Christian tradition are concerned, we must ever echo the unchanging truth voiced by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae: "The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from conception".

Dr Kerrie Allen is a Research Officer for the Australian Family Association.

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