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Church Scaremongering on Stem Cells

Church Scaremongering on Stem CellsInjecting human DNA into a non-human egg is a “monstrous” undertaking, of “Frankenstein” proportions, according to the Catholic church. Next they’ll be telling us that The Earth is flat.

These comments, delivered in an Easter sermon by a high-ranking Cardinal, are part of the Catholic church’s recent campaign against The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, currently passing through the UK House of Commons.

Amongst other things, this ground-breaking legislation will allow the use of human/animal hybrid embryos for stem cell research. This is an important enabling technique that involves removing the DNA from animal eggs and replacing it with somatic human DNA to allow the creation of stem cells for use in studying and treating debilitating diseases. One of the technique’s main advantages is that it avoids the use of stem cells generated from human embryos, greatly easing the associated supply and ethical problems.

The UK government considers this as a key piece of legislation that will allow the UK to continue to lead the way in stem cell research. Of course, the Catholic church disagrees with the bill and they have every right to enter into the ethical debate on it. But the way they are going about it is wrong.

Ethical debate must always be based on fact, if not, it is no longer a debate. In it’s addresses on this issue, the Catholic church has deliberately bent the truth and used alarmist language in an effort to stimulate their congregations into action. A letter sent to one MP by a citizen protesting that “We don’t want people who are half human, half cow walking down our street.” would suggest that their efforts are having some success.

What’s even more worrying is that some of the troops that have been successfully mobilised by the church’s efforts are members of the UK government itself. Twelve Catholic members of parliament (MPs) have demanded the freedom to vote with their conscience against the bill, rather than being forced to follow the party line and have threatened to quit if they are not allowed to do so. This would be a disaster for the government, so the prime minister is being forced to consider their demands.

There is nothing wrong in principle with a free vote on this subject, but the fact is that the Catholic MPs are seeking to replace their party line with the Catholic church’s.

UK government policy being altered by the direct action of the Catholic church? In a secular society, this must set alarm bells ringing.

I would be willing to bet that none of the twelve MPs who are demanding the right to exercise their religious beliefs in policy decisions used their religious beliefs as part of their election campaigns. That generally doesn’t happen in the UK.

For all I know, the MP I voted for in the last election could be Catholic and I would have no problem with that as I would assume that in this secular society his religion would not directly affect policy-making. But I would be extremely angry if he (ab)used my mandate to take part in this purely religious and non-fact-based attempt to de-rail a policy of such importance.

I’m sure that suffers of the many debilitating diseases that stem cell research hopes to cure would be angry too.

Would you?


  1. Dan on March 27, 2008 at 8:51 am

    I’ll just jump back in here to say that Nick’s first explanation says all that needs to be said:

    The church has used deliberately alarmist language (e.g. monstrous and frankenstein) in addressing this issue. This is the sort of language I would expect from a tabloid newspaper.

    That high-ranking members of even the Catholic Church would say as much is not surprising. Even Pope Benedict XVI / Cardinal Ratzinger has, over his career, been known to say some really unhelpful things regarding the intersection of science and politics.

  2. Nick on March 26, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    My intention in this short article was not to evidence the Catholic church’s actions in this matter since that has been well documented elsewhere.

    My intention was to highlight the short-circuiting of a vitally important debate by the church, the fact that they used tabloid tactics to do so and my personal alarm that MPs elected in a secular society are forcing the government to be influenced by the church’s rhetoric.

    Perhaps it would have been helpful if I had referenced the sermon in question – to remedy this, here is a reference to the pertinent excerpt from the sermon:

    I agree that there is nothing wrong MPs threatening to quit over a moral issue, but lets make the distinction here. These are not independent moral objections, but objections at least heavily biased by the opinion of the church. It is completely unacceptable for the church to influence the actions of the government in this way.

    I also agree that it is important for scientists to argue based on facts, but I don’t think I am guilty of failing to do so in this article.

    On some of the points you highlighted – It is a fact that religion does not tend to enter election campaigns in the UK (hence, I would definitely be willing to bet that few, if any, Labour MPs were elected on a religious mandate). And it is also a fact that the early Catholic church’s asserted that the Earth was indeed flat, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. My quip that the church will be next tell that the Earth is flat was a deliberate, but tongue-in-cheek, reference to this, with the intention of suggesting that with this high-handed and hysterical approach to the stem cell issue, the church are acting in a manner that it every bit as blinkered as their forefathers. This is just my opinion, but perhaps you are right that this is not the most constructive way to put it.

    I accept that you are not defending the church here, and neither am I suggesting that the morality of stem cell research should be accepted without question… but whipping people up into a blind hysteria – or conducting government policy on the basis of it – is not the way to conduct the debate.

  3. Th1 on March 26, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    I don’t live in England. Nor am I a churchgoer, so I just had this article to go on and it did not use any supporting evidence for its claims. The fact that there is a misinformed individual who speaks of half-human, half cows walking down the street in the absence of the information that the Catholic church is actually disseminating is meaningless. The term “monstrous Frankensteins” is also not particularly useful unless it is placed within the context of the actual message.

    I’m not defending the Catholic church here because I do not know enough about their actions, although I see no problem with MPs threatening to quit over a moral objection. My point is simply that as scientists it is important to speak from facts and not resort to name calling like “next they’ll be telling us the Earth is flat” if we hope to be persuasive instead of polarizing in the public sphere.

  4. Nick on March 26, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    @Th1. My thinking on this is quite clear:

    1) The church has used deliberately alarmist language (e.g. monstrous and frankenstein) in addressing this issue. This is the sort of language I would expect from a tabloid newspaper.

    2) In doing this they have alarmed, confused and mis-informed those members of the public who listen to the church and respect its opinion, muddying the waters on what is actually being debated here. The letter I referred to is an example of how mis-informed one member of the public was.

    3) Through this they have mobilised Catholics, including MPs who are seeking to short-circuit the debate on the issue and directly impose the church’s rhetoric on government policy decisions.

    4) It is entirely right that moral objections to scientific procedures must be included in the debate. But it is entirely wrong of the church to skim over the debate in the way that it has.

    5) It is also a great concern to me that any MP should think that he/she has the right to vote on policy decisions based on the rhetoric of their church, rather than the views of the largely secular society that elected them.

    I hope that clears it up for you.

    These quotes were widely reported in british newspapers over the weekend. For example:

  5. Dan on March 26, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Nick clearly states that this letter is indicative of the Catholic Church’s influence on the public and national politics, NOT on the church’s position itself. Clearly that makes sense, so I don’t know what you’re talking about Th1.

    However, I am curious what article Nick is referencing….


  6. Th1 on March 26, 2008 at 3:33 am

    Wow, you really need to think a little more clearly on this subject. You state that the Catholic church is not using facts, you then support that statement by mentioning an irrational letter sent to an MP. If this letter was sent by an official from the Catholic church; you might have an argument, but it was not. It is ironic that statements like “I would be willing to bet” and “For all I know” are present in an article that is chastising someone for not being factual in debate. By being patronizing and emotional, your piece is a perfect example of how scientists should not confront those who object to some sort of research based on religious/moral grounds.

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