biology-220005_640A reader asked me a question this week. Is it permissible, he wondered, to use drugs from pharmaceutical companies that conduct research using  fetal cells? He asked:

Some major pharmaceutical companies are manufacturing abortion pills, manufacturing vaccines with aborted fetal cells, researching with fetal cells etc.. but they are producing some top quality drugs for some particular illnesses. so is it morally wrong to buy drugs from these companies? Do we need to boycott all the products from these companies altogether?

GOOD QUESTION! In fact, that sticky “stem cell” question has been on my mind this week, following the death of hockey legend Gordie Howe. Howe died June 10 at the age of 88, and his funeral was held this week in Detroit’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Howe, you may recall, underwent stem cell treatments following a stroke in October 2014 and a second health crisis in December of that year. The controversy stems from the fact that some of the stem cells used to treat the hockey great were taken from aborted fetuses.

Howe’s son Dr. Murray Howe, director of sports medicine imaging of Toledo Hospital, arranged for the controversial treatment in Mexico and reported on the positive effects on the elder Howe’s health.  Speaking about his father to NHL Live, Dr. Howe reported that his dad was “doing fantastic.” According to a report from the National Hockey League:

“He was just absolutely in dire, dire straits. Our biggest concern was that he would just die when he was in California or in Mexico of natural causes related to his stroke. He was that far gone.”

Gordie Howe had the treatment Dec. 8 in Tijuana at a Mexican stem cell company called Novastem that’s licensed the use of Stemedica’s cells for clinical trials approved by the Mexican government. Neural stem cells were injected into the spinal canal on Day 1 and mesenchymal stem cells by intravenous infusion on Day 2, according to a release sent by the Howe family in mid-December.

“They said that we might see some changes in my father within 24 hours and I just didn’t believe it,” Dr. Howe said.

Eight hours later, Gordie Howe began talking. He then demanded to walk to the bathroom.

“I said ‘I’ll get the urinal because you can’t walk’ and he says, ‘Well the

[heck] I can’t walk,'” Dr. Howe said. “We actually sat up and put his feet down on the side of bed and I was absolutely stunned. I’d never seen anything like it in 28 years of doing medicine.

“I helped him walk to the bathroom, but he held his own weight. He did that two other times that night and by the next morning he was even stronger on his feet and had better balance. That morning he got the IV and that just seemed to light him up. It was like he had an instant sun tan, but it wasn’t like an allergic reaction or a rash. It was just more blood flow going through his skin or his body. He reminded me of a racehorse that was in the stall and waiting to get out of the gate. He was just ready to go. He didn’t even want the wheelchair to go back to the hotel.”

Upon returning to the hotel, Gordie Howe was making the bed and walking around the room. Before the treatment, Gordie was shown images by therapists and could name one out of 10 items. Four days after the treatment, he recognized eight of them.

“Because he hadn’t walked for literally almost two months, he had very little strength,” Dr. Howe said. “He’d walk about maybe 20 seconds and then he’d have to sit down. He’d only sit down for a few seconds and he’d be right back up again. Every day since then he just got a little stronger and a little better.”

While I’m happy for Gordie and the Howe family, I’m deeply concerned that some of the cells used in Howe’s treatment were derived from brain cells from a 14- to 16-week-old aborted fetus.


Well, actually, we can! We are free to receive treatments which utilize adult stem cells–the kind which have shown promise in early testing. One example of an acceptable method of transferring stem cells is bone marrow transplant. The problem, though, is with fetal (or embryonic) stem cells. Those cells are taken from a developing fetus, either one which was killed by abortion, or in some cases, one which was created in a laboratory specifically for the purpose of experimentation. The Catholic Church teaches that we must respect all life–and we may not take the fetus’ life in order to help another person.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center explains on its website, in an article on the use of human “biological material” of illicit origin. Their explanation is drawn from the 2008 Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae:

Dignitas personae addresses the question initially in paragraph 32:

“The use of embryonic stem cells or differentiated cells derived from them—even when these are provided by other researchers through the destruction of embryos or when such cells are commercially available—presents serious problems from the standpoint of cooperation in evil and scandal.”

Of course, there are no life-saving products that derive from embryonic stem cells. Despite years of hype, the most promising developments in this field have been made using adult stem cells, including the newly discovered induced pluripotent stem cells, which have most of the same properties as the embryonic, but do not involve the destruction of embryos.  An induced pluripotent stem cell is developed from a fully developed human body cell. Through various complex manipulations, it is reprogrammed and reverts to an earlier stage of development.

Dignitas personae returns to the question in paragraphs 34 and 35, where the “criterion of independence” is roundly critiqued. Those who claim that the use of embryonic stem cells and their derivatives is permissible so long as someone else destroys the embryo face a contradiction. They cannot pretend to be free of moral responsibility when others commit injustices from which their own research benefits.

I wrote about the moral difference between adult and embryonic stem cell treatments in the National Catholic Register back in June 2015, after Gordie Howe underwent the treatments which apparently restored at least some of his strength and capability.  Here in the United States, there is some confusion regarding the terms used for stem cells; and what scientists call “adult stem cells” may, indeed, originate with consenting adults–or they may come from aborted fetuses. I explained the scientific sleight-of-hand here:

If you’re in Australia, “adult stem cells” are just what you think they are: stem cells from consenting adults. Under professional guidelines in force in that nation, the words “adult stem cell” can be used only to describe cells that come from an adult donor.

But here in the United States, what seems obvious is instead cloaked in ambiguity. Here, the cells that we call “adult stem cells” or “somatic cells” can be taken from the tissue of an adult, a child, or even a fetus. And informed consent guidelines included in a patient handbook from the International Society for Stem Cell Research fail to address the issue.

According to current U.S. guidelines, what characterizes “adult” stem cells is not the status of the donor, but rather, the ability of the cell to develop into many different cell types—although that differentiation is usually limited to cell types found in the organ of origin.

Stemedica claims that calling their product “adult” stem cells is scientifically accurate. They explain that their cells are mature stem cells with a specialized function, as opposed to embryonic stem cells, which are more akin to “blank slate” cells that are considered riskier and more likely to cause tumors.

For opponents of abortion, use of stem cells which are called “adult” but which are derived from the tissue of unborn fetuses is morally objectionable. Pro-life groups oppose the inclusion of fetal cells in medical treatments because their use may encourage the killing of nascent human beings.

So can you receive stem cell treatments to combat disease? Yes, but only if those cells are what are called “adult stem cells” which are NOT the product of abortion or killing of a human person.


Image:  Pixabay