"The Catholic Church opposes life-saving stem-cell research!"
How many times have we seen this claim repeated by credulous
reporters? More importantly, how many of us know that this
claim is completely false?
To be clear, the Catholic Church does oppose embryonic
stem-cell research - that is, the kind of research that
creates and destroys embryonic human beings. But the Church
strongly supports research that uses donated adult stem cells
and umbilical cord blood cells - the only type of research
that is actually yielding life-saving therapies today.
Donated stem cells have the potential to develop into more
specific cells, many of which are already used to treat
cancer, genetic diseases and immunodeficiency disorders.
Sadly, while umbilical cord blood can offer life-saving
therapy, it is usually discarded as medical waste.
Technology, properly and morally used, can be a wonderful
thing. Today, parents have the opportunity to donate blood
from their newborn's umbilical cord, after the child is born,
to a bank where it can provide the gift of life for a patient
in need. Donation of cord blood poses no risk to either
mother or baby and does not alter the birth experience since
the blood can be collected either before or after the
placenta is delivered. By agreeing to donate your child's
cord blood, you really are just authorizing medical
professionals to properly collect, transport and store this
blood that would otherwise be thrown away.
Such donations do, however, require some planning. Sometime
before the 34th week of pregnancy, parents and their
obstetrician should discuss the option of cord blood
donation, and parents must complete a detailed medical
questionnaire. A history of cancer other than successfully
treated superficial skin cancers makes a woman ineligible to
donate cord blood. In addition, certain infections within the
12 months prior to delivery would eliminate the possibility
of cord blood donation. Within one week after delivery, a
mother must have her own blood drawn and screened for
infectious diseases like hepatitis, human immunodeficiency
virus and cytomegalovirus in order to complete the donation
There are currently only 185 hospitals in the United States
that have umbilical cord blood collection programs, so their
availability varies widely. In Virginia, the only hospital
with an established program is Inova-Fairfax. But even if a
hospital does not have a cord blood donation program, the
opportunity may still exist if parents are willing to do a
little legwork. Parents can obtain donation kits directly
from the banks and then bring these kits to the hospital when
they check in for the birth of their child. The list of
participating hospitals, as well as the list of public cord
blood banks that support donations in non-participating
hospitals, can be found at bethematch.org.
The donation of umbilical cord blood is encouraged by the
American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Medical
Association; and it is considered morally licit by the
Catholic Church. In fact, the Church recognizes organ and
tissue donation as a supreme act of charity. Blessed Pope
John Paul II wrote in "Evangelium Vitae":
"Over and above such outstanding moments, there is an
everyday heroism, made up of gestures of sharing, big or
small, which build up an authentic culture of life. A
particularly praiseworthy example of such gestures is the
donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable
manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even
of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope"
Therefore, the possibility to donate their newborn's
umbilical cord blood deserves serious consideration from
Catholic parents. With a little effort on their part, parents
can allow the precious gift that they have received with the
birth of their child to become a gift of life for someone
suffering from a catastrophic illness. While it may not be
possible for all parents to make such a gift, it's worth
noting that often generosity with life goes beyond mere
openness to having children. Donating cord blood is a
beautiful witness to a true culture of life.
Hunnell is a fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative
of Human Life International.