London (CNSNews.com) - Pope John Paul II has thrown his weight behind calls for research into the possible use of human stem cells for organ transplant to focus on cells from adults rather than from embryos.
The Pope told 5,000 medical specialists at a congress in Rome that even though the proposed goal of such research - possible cures for diseases such as Parkinson's - was good, the manipulation and destruction of embryos was morally unacceptable.
His stand lends support to pro-lifers opposed both to the use of existing embryos, left over from in-vitro fertilization treatment for example, and to the cloning of embryos.
"Science itself points to other forms of therapeutic intervention which would not involve cloning or the use of embryonic cells, but rather would make use of stem cells taken from adults," the Vatican press services quotes the Pope as telling the international congress of the Transplantation Society.
The British government earlier this month said it would allow limited cloning of human embryos for research purposes, and President Clinton subsequently approved federal funding for similar research in the U.S.
Other countries are considering their positions. Germany's health minister, Andrea Fischer, was quoted as saying there was no need for a "knee-jerk reaction" to the UK decision, and broad consensus would be sought before any change was made in Germany's current policy.
The Italian government is considering a referendum on the matter.
Proponents say stem cells - the building-blocks of skin, muscle and tissue - may in the future be able to help in curing a range of diseases, but pro-life critics note that embryos are destroyed in the process. Moreover, they say experimenting with embryos is unnecessary as adult stem cells, which can be isolated from bone marrow, may provide the same therapeutic benefits in the future.
"This particular field of medical science, for all the hope of health and life it offers to many, also presents certain critical issues that need to be examined in the light of a discerning anthropological and ethical reflection," the Pontiff told the Rome gathering.
"In this area of medical science too, the fundamental criterion must be the defense and promotion of the integral good of the human person, in keeping with that unique dignity which is ours by virtue of our humanity," the Pope said.
Donating Organs 'An Act of Love'
The Pope's stance on cloning and exploiting human embryos was not unexpected. The Vatican's newspaper recently editorialized strongly against it, echoing the stance taken by Roman Catholic media and commentators elsewhere.
However, the Pope's remarks on organ donation - a problematic issue for many Catholics - won applause from the Transplantation Society delegates.
The Pope said transplants were "a great step forward in science's service of man" and called organ donation "a genuine act of love."
He stressed, however, that the commercial exploitation of organs was not acceptable. Neither was "discrimination," on any grounds other than medical, in decisions on who should be allocated available organs.
The Pope also warned that organs should only be removed when the donor was "certainly dead," and he defined this as the point at which there was a "complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity."
It was reported earlier this month that a British anesthetist believes patients considered "brain-dead" may still experience pain when organs are removed for transplant. A number of anesthetists said monitors attached to supposedly "brain-dead" patients at times showed signs of activity in the higher brain when organs were being removed.
See Earlier Story:
New Research Points to Ethical Alternatives to Embryonic Cloning