WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Gametes and embryos in human reproductive research


Life and physical health are precious gifts that have been entrusted to us. We have a responsibility to take care of them while taking into account the needs of others and the common good. Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society work assiduously to support all persons to live fulfilled lives. To this end the Catholic Church recognises the importance of, and is committed to, ongoing research into human health and wellbeing.

All research on human beings must be subject to respect for the dignity of human life. Science and technology must be ordered to the wellbeing of human kind from which they take their origin and development. The purpose of human research and an awareness of the ethical limits of research are grounded in, and remain at the service of, the integral good of human beings. Actions that are of themselves contrary to the dignity of persons cannot be legitimated in the name of research or experimentation.

‘The Church respects and supports scientific research when it has a genuinely human orientation avoiding any form of instrumentalisation or destruction of the human being. (Pope John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy for Life, 24 February 2003.)

The question is whether our technical progress will be guided by an equally advanced sense of the dignity of each and every human life. Human society benefits only from research that reflects good science and good ethics. The debate over the use of embryos for research highlights a paradox: Whether or not we should destroy human life in its earliest and most vulnerable form in the cause of following our deeply humanitarian impulses to reduce suffering and find cures to human diseases.

This introduction outlines the context in which we offer the following comments on the proposed guidelines for the use of gametes and embryos in reproductive research within New Zealand.

Executive summary

The question that stands at the heart of the debate about embryo-destructive research is whether or not it is ethical to achieve a good outcome using bad means – in this case the destruction of pre-nascent human life. Catholic teaching provides clear guidance on this question and the stance taken by the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand in their submission is summarised below. The position is essentially a positive one that argues an alternative way forward based on sound principles that reflect a rich understanding of the human person, a desire to protect and promote human dignity and a deep commitment to research and healing.

Only interventions which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and are directed towards its wellbeing are morally licit. All other research or interventions on embryos should be prohibited. We oppose the deliberate creation of embryos for embryo-destructive research. We also oppose the use of so-called ‘surplus’ IVF embryos for embryo-destructive research.

In the case of embryo-destructive research carried out in the name of finding cures, the means actually contradicts and undermines the end or outcome being sought – human life is destroyed in the name of preserving human life.

Other alternatives to embryo-destructive research exist. Real progress that is genuinely therapeutic has been, and continues to be, made with adult stem cells. Progress is also being made in sourcing pluripotent cells that exhibit the same behaviours as ESCs but which can be obtained without the need to destroy human embryos.

We consider that the inviolable dignity of the human embryo is sufficient reason for us as a society to step back from embryo-destructive research. However, even leaving aside the controversial question of the moral status of the embryo, it is our considered view that taking proper account of all other relevant moral factors, it is not possible to create a sufficiently persuasive – let alone substantially persuasive – moral account necessary to justify allowing the practice of embryo-destructive research in New Zealand.

The divide in the debate surrounding the use of embryos in research is sometimes falsely presented in terms of those in favour of progress and those against. This is a misrepresentation. Our stance against embryo-destructive research reflects a positive commitment to uphold the inviolable dignity of human life. Research that does not uphold human dignity will not ultimately advance human wellbeing.

A recommentation by ACART in favour of embryo-destructive research would be a recommendation for New Zealanders to cross a fundamental moral line never before crossed: permitting the direct killing of human life in its earliest and most vulnerable stages in the name of medical ‘progress’.

New Zealand is currently in the unique position of being able to exercise moral leadership by rejecting embryo-destructive research and supporting stem cell research.

Research using gametes should be regulated through guidelines and then allowed to proceed on a case-by-case basis with appropriate ethical scrutiny. Particular regard needs to be paid to informing women of the risks associated with egg donation and to protecting them from exploitation. The commodification of human life is also of concern.

For the full submission, see The Nathaniel Report, April 2007 or www.nathaniel.org.nz