LUXEMBOURG — A ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) against the patenting of destructive research on human embryo stem cells has been described by European bishops as a milestone in the protection of human life.
The ruling follows a test case involving the work of a German professor, Oliver Brüstle of the University of Bonn Medical Center. He had devised a technique for turning stem cells from a human embryo into nerve cells, and he wished to patent his work.
Though the ECJ ruling found that the use of human embryos for scientific research is not patentable, their use for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes can still be patented.
This move to patent research involving the killing of human embryos was opposed by Greenpeace, which argued that it was unethical to patent work based on a human embryo which would then be destroyed.
The ECJ has decided that such destructive research cannot be patented. It also offered a clear interpretation of how it defined the human embryo, a move welcomed by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE).
In a statement, it said, “Fertilization marks the beginning of the biological existence of a human being that undergoes a process of development. Therefore, the human embryo, at every stage of development, must be considered a human being with potential, and not just a ‘potential human being.’
“Furthermore, it has to be welcomed that the ‘removal of a stem cell from a human embryo at the blastocyst stage, entailing the destruction of that embryo,’ cannot be patented either.”
COMECE went on to hail the judgment as “a milestone in the protection of human life in EU legislation that will most likely have a positive impact in concrete policy fields like the funding of research in the EU.”
Archbishop Peter Smith, chairman of the Life Issues and the Dignity of the Human Person working group of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, described the ECJ finding as “a very welcome decision because it reminds us of, and makes explicit, the value of every human life from its very beginning.”
Though the losing party in the case, Brüstle, described the ruling as an “unbelievable setback for biomedical stem-cell research,” Archbishop Smith of Southwark pointed to other scientists who think very differently.
“This decision is about money and patents,” he said. “There will be winners and losers financially, but it is wrong to call it a ‘setback’ for stem-cell science. There are already many scientists saying this decision could be helpful for stem-cell research. I hope the decision will encourage those involved in stem-cell research to carry out that research in ways that are both ethical and effective.”
However, the archbishop noted the unfavorable reception to the ruling by some elements of the secular media. Asked why he thought this was, he said he thought some had “reacted very emotionally and far too quickly to this story. It seems, to me, that they decided that it was a matter of ‘ethics versus potentially life-saving science.’
“They did not seem to understand that the newest and most effective work in stem-cell research doesn’t involve human embryos, but involves adult stem cells. This latter research, to which I believe there can be no ethical objection, is already producing excellent and applicable results. So the European Court decision is both a triumph for ethics and something that in fact will help effective and ethical stem-cell research.”
The science of embryology teaches that human life begins at fertilization. Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the killing of a unique human being in an attempt to cure different diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a cure. Non-embryonic stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the destruction of human life. It has proven successful in treating more than 70 different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.
The Church teaches that all research using stem cells from human embryos is “morally unacceptable.”
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life), Pope John Paul II said, “This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases.
“The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.”
The Catholic peer, David Alton, Baron Alton of Liverpool, who recently launched the pro-life “San Jose Articles” at the House of Lords in London, told the Register the reactions said much about the value the speakers place on human life.
“The stridently negative reaction of some researchers and commentators in the U.K. may, unfortunately, serve to show their true colors,” he commented. “It reveals where profit motives have sadly become paramount, rather than the open sharing of discoveries — which a ban on patents should encourage — or a communitarian search for genuine therapies. Human life should never be treated as just another commodity. It is devalued when it is, and so are we.”
James Kelly, Ph.D., is a columnist for
The Universe, the biggest-selling Catholic weekly in Britain and Ireland, and a
researcher at the University of London.