Irving Comments: "Wisconsin Bishops' Pastoral Letter On Stem Cell Research"

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright May 2, 2008
Reproduced with Permission

Having read the article in LifeSiteNews about the Wisconsin Bishops' Pastoral Letter on stem cell research [Michael Baggot, "Wisconsin Bishops' Pastor Letter Promotes Ethical Stem Cell Research; Release Question and Answer booklet and 14-minute DVD related to letter", Thursday May 1, 2008, at:], I thought I would look it up online. Although all-in-all it seems to be a good effort for a very much needed open and "public dialogue" on this issue, there are several problems with the Pastoral Letter that might be considered, a few of which are noted (marked in "red") as copied below these comments.

Among the concerns is their reference to "the baby in the womb" only, which would not include the human embryo sexually reproduced in vivo from fertilization in the woman's fallopian tube until implantation in her womb. The Pastoral Letter thus ignores the use of abortifacients and the abortion of these earliest human beings sexually reproduced.

By selectively using the phrases "fertilization" and "the baby in the womb" only, the Pastoral Letter also completely ignores all human embryos reproduced asexually, including naturally occurring human monozygotic twins in vivo, as well as those artificially reproduced asexually in vitro. The Pastoral Letter thus ignores the abortion of one of every two monozygotic twins in vivo through 9 months, the use of these human embryos artificially reproduced in vitro in destructive human embryonic stem cell research, and the abortion of those experimental human embryos implanted as "infertility treatments" through nine months in vivo. All of those living human embryos just identified - both sexually and asexually reproduced, both in vivo and in vitro -- also have "stem cells" for the taking as well. Would the killing of those human embryos for their "stem cells" thus constitute "ethical stem cell research"?

Further, sexually reproduced human embryos do not begin to exist at the end of fertilization (with the formation of the zygote), but rather, according to the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development, at the beginnning of fertilization (when the sperm penetrates the oocyte). Indeed, the penetrated oocyte and the ootid, along with the zygote, constitute Stage One of human embryonic development. (See Irving, "The Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development: Chart of all 23 Stages, and Detailed Descriptions of Carnegie Stages 1 - 6" (April 22, 2006), at: Thus a great deal of human cloning and human genetic engineering to produce new living human embryos before the zygote is formed for their future stem cells is also ignored by the Pastoral Letter.

The Pastoral Letter also endorses the use of IPS "stem cells" (regardless of the legitimate scientific objections voiced on both sides of the issue), and uses the phrase "a small group of cells" to refer to the early human being (which, although hopefully not intended, is a flash-back to the Weissman/West mis-definition of the human embryo after cloning as "only a bunch of cells" or "a ball of cells").

In the Q and A webpage that further explains the Pastoral Letter, other errors include: defining "human embryonic stem cells" erroneously as "undifferentiated" (they are in fact amazingly differentiated already), and essentially as "pluripotent" rather than as "totipotent" (and thus capable of being reverted to new living human embryos); and defining "natural law" AS human reason (which is just a little bit bizarre). The Pastoral Letter also ignores the real source of the crisis of "frozen embryos" as being IVF per se, and seems to sanction all the proffered "solutions" to the problem (including embryo adoption?) without exception. I continue to be amazed that, after 40 years, the Church has still not got this Biology 101 right -- until I looked at the list of those acknowledged for their "help".

One does wonder how the term "pastoral" is being defined? And pastoral to whom? From the point of view of all the living human embryos, living innocent human beings, identified above, I doubt if this Pastoral Letter is as pastoral as it might be. Is it just a case of the blind leading the blind? Surely it is problematic enough when such "Pastoral Letters" so mislead the faithful about these issues and lead instead to the false formation of their consciences. Worse, if all of these mis-definitions and ignored items ever make it into law, such a law would thus be riddled with legal loopholes that would legally sanction by default the use of abortifacients, abortion through nine months, In Vitro Fertilization and other artificial reproductive technologies, and the use of human embryos in destructive human embryonic stem cell research - for many sexually and all asexually reproduced human embryos, in vivo or in vitro --, not to mention the deconstruction of natural law. Can someone prove to me where I am wrong? I'm listening.


Pastoral Letter: click here for PDF download.

Serving All and Sacrificing None
Ethical Stem Cell Research
A Pastoral Letter from the Roman Catholic Bishops of Wisconsin

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

When we deliberate about the pressing issues of our day, such as embryonic stem cell research, our Catholic tradition employs both reason and faith to help us arrive at moral truth and understanding.

Human reason, as perfected in natural law, leads us, as it did America's founders, to the self-evident truth that all people are endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to life. Our Catholic faith enhances this truth. We believe in a God Who so loves us that He created us in His own image to share His life now and forever. His love was such that He became one of us in Jesus and gave His earthly life so we may have eternal life.

In His ultimate "giving of self" for the good of others, the Son of God reveals to us who we truly are and how we can live most fully. He calls each of us to show a similar concern for every other human being, respecting the intrinsic worth of others and never using them as a means for our own benefit.

Today, when the marvels of science and technology present choices and questions never previously faced, His example and message are as relevant as they were in the time of the Apostles. Emulating His humanism so that we may become our best selves, we are called to harness new developments at the cutting edge of science in ways that respect the dignity of all human life, especially in its most vulnerable stages.

This is not a matter of faith versus science, because one can be both faith-filled and scientific. Many scientists are people of deep faith and moral conviction. They recognize that faith and science, far from being mutually exclusive, in fact complement one another. Instead of asking, "Will we be religious, or will we be scientific?" they ask, "How can our scientific research best serve humanity? How can we best respect our human subjects in our research?"

We know many struggle with official Catholic teaching that a small group of cells invisible to the naked eye deserves the same protection as the life of a baby in the womb, a child in the crib, or a person sitting next to us in church. Yet, consider how often physical appearances deceive us and how shortsighted our initial impressions can be.

This Catholic teaching is not an example of faith absent science, but rather faith supported by science. It is scientists who have demonstrated that the single cell, or zygote that results from fertilization, contains the complete genetic information necessary for the development of a unique human being. It is scientists who have shown us that human development is a continuous, uninterrupted process, from zygote, embryo, fetus, infant, child, to adult.

Faith builds on these scientific facts by acknowledging that our Creator endows our human nature with an innate dignity that does not depend on our size, beauty, intelligence, wealth, or any other attribute. We are persons because we are made in the image of God. We are persons whether our reasoning skills are developing or deteriorating, whether we are in the beginning stages of life or nearing life's end. Human life is ultimately a gift of God, of which each of us is a steward. And it is a gift that began and developed for all of us in exactly the same way.

Faith also teaches us that the life span of any human being is not ours to determine. Whether one's life ends with a miscarriage or after many decades into adulthood is a decision left to God's providence. Like you, we fear crippling injuries and chronic disease, and we have experienced the anguish of seeing a loved one suffer. We long for the day when scientists can find treatments and cures for these conditions. But we cannot agree with those who suggest that respecting the inviolability of a human embryo devalues the lives of the ill and infirm because it may deny them a treatment or a cure. On the contrary, when we value vulnerable life in one context, we strengthen the case for valuing it in others.

Some argue that people of faith overstep their proper place when they raise moral or ethical concerns about biotechnology. They maintain that the Church can believe whatever it wants as long as it does not impose its beliefs on others. We are not seeking to "impose" narrow doctrinal beliefs, but rather to "propose" reasonable standards for the protection of human life and dignity.

Furthermore, raising moral concerns is essential for genuine scientific progress. Consider the infamous biomedical case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Even after penicillin was discovered in 1947, medical researchers working for the U.S. Public Health Service in Tuskegee, Alabama, deliberately withheld the drug from infected African-American men—impoverished and mostly illiterate—without their consent, so that they could study the full progression of the disease. Today, no one would dispute that ethical standards were sorely lacking in the Tuskegee Study and that true scientific progress can be made only when those standards are securely in place.

We ask for the same consideration in the case of stem cell research. The Church supports stem cell research whenever it does not involve destroying human embryos. Adult stem cells found, for example, in the amniotic fluid, umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, and skin cells can be extracted without harming the donor, and they have already helped thousands of individuals suffering from serious ailments. The Church applauds the recent breakthrough in reprogramming adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. All of these advancements demonstrate that the highest ethical standards can and must guide scientific progress.

As Catholics, we are called to respect and love all human life. But we have a special duty towards the most vulnerable persons in our midst—the embryo and the unborn child, the chronically ill and the poor, the prisoner and the refugee. In doing so, we reveal the essence of our humanity and of our Christian faith.

Therefore, we encourage all of you to study the educational materials that accompany this letter, seek out additional scientific information, and engage our fellow citizens in truth and love during this vital civic conversation over stem cell research. May we together strive to use our scientific knowledge in ways that serve all and sacrifice none.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

The Most Reverend Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of Milwaukee
Administrator of Green Bay Diocese

The Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Bishop of La Crosse

The Most Reverend Robert C. Morlino
Bishop of Madison

The Most Reverend Peter F. Christensen
Bishop of Superior

April 2008

Wisconsin Catholic Conference: Questions and Answers PDF download

What are stem cells and how can they be used?

In general, stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the ability to replicate indefinitely and to develop into more specialized cells.

Isn't the Church trying to impose its religious beliefs on society?

Natural law, or human reason, tells us ... Within hours of fertilization, the zygote has a unique DNA profile, ...

But isn't the frozen embryo that will be discarded different from the embryo in the womb?

Whether frozen or in the womb, both embryos have the same make-up and share the same dignity.

What does the Church suggest should be done with the countless number of frozen embryos?

As the Pope indicated, all these solutions, although perhaps not immoral by nature, [[What about addressing IVF, the source of these frozen embryos???]]

Additional Resources

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference gratefully acknowledges:

Rev. Patrick Norris
Rev. Javier Bustos
Rev. John Yockey
The Wisconsin Diocesan Catholic Social Action and Respect Life Offices
National Catholic Bioethics Center
SaintMax Worldwide, Inc. for their assistance in the production of these educational materials.