In front of a packed audience at St. Thomas More Chapel, Rev. Kevin FitzGerald argued against using human embryonic stem cells for research and attempted to clear up what he called confusion around a fractious issue.
The speech, “Stem Cells: Confusion, Contention, Convergence,” was delivered Thursday afternoon as part of the Thomas E. Golden Jr. Fellowship in Faith and Science, an annual program on the intersection on the connections between religion and science. FitzGerald said there are too many ethical questions regarding the use of embryonic cells to warrant their use. To harness the stem cells in an embryo, the embryo must be destroyed.
“There are lots of alternatives — and no guarantees,” he said.
In addition, FitzGerald said there are other ways to treat the diseases that many people say would be more easily curable with stem cells. He said confusion over the definition of stem cells and stem cell research has led to much of the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research today.
Arguments have been made that embryonic stem cells could potentially help cure Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. FitzGerald challenged those who support research on those grounds to come up with concrete figures.
“Give me a list of all the people who will be cured — if you get a cure,” he said.
In addition, he said, there is a possibility that similar breakthroughs could be made without stem cells.
While FitzGerald, who is a doctor, a minister and a professor at Georgetown University, did not mention religion explicitly, the topic was on the minds of the organizers and of audience members. Jan Attridge, executive director of St. Thomas More, said the chapel chose FitzGerald because of the political tensions surrounding stem cell research.
“We felt that it was an issue of whether or not the government should fund the research,” she said. “There’s a lot of emotion about this issue, about what the end result would be.”
Lisa Petrella ’06, a graduate student in genetics who described herself as a practicing Christian, said she had never seen a conflict between religion and stem cell research.
“There was never any conflict for me, but I’ve had interactions with colleagues where they’ve said they felt conflicted,” she said. “It’s very personal. I don’t personally find anything ethically wrong with it.”
At the talk, FitzGerald provided handouts that showed the different types of stem cells. Some, he said, can only make cells with the same type of tissue, but others, called totipotent, can differentiate to become all the cells of the body. Embryonic cells are totipotent.
“The embryo cell can make the body,” he said. “That very first cell — we came from that — must be capable of making all the cells.”
The emergence of stem cells has created another wrinkle in the long controversy about what constitutes human life. FitzGerald said there should not be an arbitrary definition of when an embryo becomes human, and did not give a definition of his own.
At the chapel, Mary Carney, a nurse and a member of the church, said it was important for religious institutions to address the issue of stem cells.
“Any issue involving life is important,” she said. “It’s important for me as a church member to think about this from a medical perspective and a spiritual perspective.”
The Golden Fellowship was established by St. Thomas More to bring prominent Catholic thinkers to speak to members of the Yale community.