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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stem Cell Awareness Day - Feast of St. Faustina

Today is apparently National Stem Cell Awareness Day. It is also the feast day of one of our newer saints, St. Maria Faustina, who promoted the devotion to the Divine Mercy.

If one is to be aware of stem cells, the single most important thing to be aware of is the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. If you look at the website of the Stem Cell Awareness Day organizers, you would be hard pressed to find this distinction. They talk a lot about the value of stem cell research and all the wonder potential treatments that stem cells may one day offer. If you want to find out about this all important distinction, you have to go to the parent site of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

Embryonic stem cells are the early cells of human development, those that are formed in the first few days after fertilization. They have the power to become all of the kinds of cells in the body. We are not told however that obtaining the cells means destroying the embryo. We are not told that no proven treatments using embryonic cells have been developed. We are just left to believe that embryos are simply one source of stem cells.

Another thing we are not told is that when embryonic stem cells are used for treatments of particular diseases -- say, embryonic stem cells are implanted into the brain to treat a degenerative disease such as Parkinson's -- that many do go on to become brain cells, but that many more tend to develop into the 200 or so types of cells in the body: bone, hair, teeth, skin, muscle, you name it. That is called a teratoma, and is the result of the embryonic stem cells' inclination to develop into a whole body.

That information is also hard to find on the CIRM website, at least not in a context friendly to lay users.

Adult stem cells, on the other hand, have been used to treat dozens of diseases already. Bone marrow transplants are a commonly used procedure. Adult stem cells can be modified to act like embryonic stem cells. And their use does not result in teratomas.

So, it also happens to be the feast of St. Faustina. From St. Faustina we have the devotion known as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and an extensive diary delineating in some detail her personal encounters with Jesus and his desire that people cultivate a devotion to the mercy of God that is evident in his Passion.

The use of embryonic stem cells is always portrayed as necessary if we are to be merciful to the people who suffer from diseases that such cells may one day perhaps possibly maybe be able to treat. Yet evidence of their potential is only in theory with little actual data suggesting any value whatsoever or even that it is possible to go from theory to practice. Meanwhile, amazing leaps and bounds and proven therapies have already been accomplished with adult stem cells.

And we have to ask, how merciful is embryonic stem cell research to the embryos?

The best supporters of embryonic stem cell research can do is say that they doubt the embryo is a human person. All the data suggest otherwise, even if they are right in saying it does not add up to proof. You try to reason with them, and they just say, "I reject your reasoning." Should a hunter shoot at something moving in the bushes if his friend says it might be a person? No. Should a demolition expert about to blow up a building carry out his task if someone says, Wait, I think a person is in there? No. Yet, supporters of embryonic stem cell research simply say that these analogies do not apply, and that ends the discussion. "I disagree -- and that gives me the right to conduct embryo destructive research."

I really do not believe it is about mercy to suffering sick people. There is something else. Perhaps research grants. The bit about finding treatments for diseases is mere lip service to the reset of us.

St. Faustina, pray for us.

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