National speaker says stem cell science, research need ethics

CLEMSON — There are plenty of success stories concerning the use of non-embryonic stem cells in the treatment of debilitating diseases. But most of that information is being ignored by this country’s major news media, according to a Catholic priest who has been studying and commenting on the issue for years.
Instead, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk said, most media reports on stem cell research are focused on stem cell lines that come from human embryos.
“The mass media has a particular angle that typically gets covered and it’s not always a fair coverage of the matter,” he told a packed house at the Strom Thurmond Institute on the Clemson University campus April 20.
Father Pacholczyk, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., is the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia and holds a doctorate in neuroscience. He spoke on “The Science and Ethics of Stem Cells and Cloning,” at an event sponsored by CU Students for Life, Rutland Institute for Ethics, the Strom Thurmond Institute and the College Republicans.
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Father Pacholczyk took his audience through the science of stem cells, differentiating between embryonic and other types of stem cells.
Stem cell research, or what’s called regenerative medicine, “is a powerful concept,” he said. “This idea that you can have a blank cell that you can cause to mutate into the cell-type that you want is a concept that we have never had the full ability to do until quite recently.”
He said that possibility, coupled with the introduction some 30 years ago of in vitro fertilization, has helped to accelerate the research in the use of embryonic stem cells for the treatment of Parkinson’s and other diseases.
“The whole issue of in vitro fertilization has been the paradigmatic slippery slope in this matter,” he said. “When you talk about slippery slopes, there’s no better example than in vitro.”
On top of that, an action in March by President Barack Obama reversed the eight-year ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research imposed by his predecessor.
In Executive Order 13505, the president said research involving human embryonic stem cells “has the potential to lead to better understanding and treatment of many disabling diseases and conditions.”
But the move also promised to ramp up that effort even more, Father Pacholczyk said, given the relatively easy accessibility of federal funding among researchers.
Earlier this month, the National Institutes of Health outlined the details of the executive order, saying that all stem cells derived from excess fertility clinic embryos would be eligible for federal funding.
Father Pacholczyk, who has spoken on stem cell research in a variety of media settings, including CNN, ABC, NPR and EWTN, said that the major media and the entertainment industry have both had a very influential effect on embryonic stem cell research.
The priest presented video clips of the late Christopher Reeve, and referenced the efforts of actor Michael J. Fox and former first lady Nancy Reagan in the push for more research on embryonic stem cells.
“There’s a lot of overselling, overbilling of this issue in Hollywood,” Father Pacholczyk said.
He said those who receive their news strictly from Hollywood and the major media probably do not know that human embryos are not the only source of stem cells. He said other sources such as umbilical cords, placentas, amniotic fluid and bone marrow have proven effective in the treatment of Leuk­e­mia, heart damage, spinal cord and other diseases.
The data does not support the media myth, he said. “Dozens of treatments have been successful using adult stem cells, versus zero using embryonic stem cells,” he noted.
Still, Father Pacholczyk said he fears that lifting the ban on funding for embryonic stem cell research will inevitably lead to the creation of more stem cell lines and the subsequent destruction of more human embryos.
“We currently have close to half a million frozen human beings in storage just in the United States, and that number is increasing,” he said. “Science needs to be ethical, otherwise it becomes a force that can be destructive to society.”
To read Father Pacholczyk’s monthly column “Making Sense of Bioethics,” visit the National Catholic Bioethics Center Web site at The column is also available in Spanish.