As a seminarian with a biological sciences background, I am routinely asked how I made the ‘jump’ from the lab to discernment for the priesthood. After all, are not science and religion mutually opposed? Is not the Catholic Church resistant to scientific progress? How can a person of faith also be a person of science and of reason? The interest I have in and the great joy I derive from my Catholic faith, from life in the seminary and in religious community life with the Basilian Fathers, as well as from trying to keep up with the astounding pace of contemporary science confirm for me the value of science and of religion. Both faith and reason are means of discovering the same ultimate truth. That truth, I contend as a Christian and as a scientist at heart, is rooted in and revealed by God, the author of all that is good including all human knowledge.
I was therefore pleased to have had the opportunity to meet Bishop Anthony Fisher of the Diocese of Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia. The connection between Bishop Fisher and Canada is well-established. He was made auxiliary bishop of Sydney in 2003, and was shortly thereafter given the task of bringing World Youth Day Down Under, a feat realized in 2008. Bishop Fisher credits the organization model for World Youth Day employed in Toronto in 2002 for producing what he has repeatedly cited as “the greatest weeks in the history of our country.”
Born in 1960 and ordained to the priesthood in 1991, Bishop Anthony Fisher, who entered the Dominicans (Order of Preachers, abbreviated OP) in 1985, had been a student in history and law at the University of Sydney who became involved in the pro-life movement at that university. He went on to practice law in a Sydney firm before entering religious life. In 1995, he received a doctorate in bioethics from the University of Oxford, and later became the founding Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia, a post he held from 2000 to 2003. Bishop Fisher has been titular head of the Diocese of Parramatta since January, 2010.
Two Saturdays ago, Bishop Fisher was in Toronto to give a lecture sponsored by the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute
(CCBI) at the University of St. Michael’s College. His talk was entitled Stem Cell Research: Responding to Bioethical Dilemmas in Australia Today.
The insightful and well-structured lecture focused on four aspects of the stem-cell research debate in Australia.
Firstly, Bishop Fisher spoke about scientific dilemmas around stem cells. Contrary to much popular perception, human embryos are but one of many sources of stem cells. Some stem cells are called “pluripotent,” meaning that they are able to develop into any one of a wide array of cell types that make up the human body. Pluripotent stem cells can be induced to form a particular cell type, for example to repair a part of the body that has been injured. Induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS) are an increasingly significant subject of funding and research to discover their therapeutic applications. Stem cells can also be collected and banked from many human tissues, for example muscle, bone marrow, and placental and umbilical cord tissue. Some research has also taken place in the more ethically-problematic areas of animal-human hybrid stem cell development and human embryonic stem cells (ESCs).
Thus, several forms of stem cells can be isolated by methods that do not destroy their source and are ethically permissible. Moreover, despite the hype and funding of embryonic stem cell research, these cells have not demonstrated in clinical and therapeutic usage the success of other types of stem cells obtained non-destructively.
Secondly, Bishop Fisher mentioned the commercial dilemmas of ESC research. Why, Bishop Fisher asks, is there such a push in the scientific milieu for ESCs? Bishop Fisher criticized the emergence of an “embryo industry” in Australia and in much of the western world that requires financial sustenance to survive. In turn, funding providers and the public need to be persuaded to sustain an industry whose ethical record is dubious. According to Bishop Fisher, the “salami technique” is used to convince the public that ESC research is a worthwhile enterprise. Due to ethical questions that it raises, immediate acceptance by the people of ESCs or in-vitro fertilization (IVF)- related to ESC research insofar as IVF embryos are used to develop ESC lines- is unlikely. Therefore, the public is fed the ESC salami in slices. Initially, IVF is presented as a pro-life endeavour; this masks the intrinsic sacrifice of human embryos with the promise of improved quality of life. The next slices of the salami are to expand the list of those eligible for IVF therapy, and then to make “excess” IVF embryos available for research. All these slices of the salami- thus the whole salami- become ethically and legally acceptable in a society such as that of Australia. Bishop Fisher postulated that, although ESC use is legally restricted in Canada, this country may not be many salami slices behind Australia in our acceptance of research on IVF-derived ESCs.
Thirdly, the ethical considerations of ESC research, though related to its scientific and commercial dilemmas, were raised by Bishop Fisher as a distinct category. Bishop Fisher contended that human embryos are continuous with foetuses, with children, and then with adults and so forth. Only scientists with an interest in ESC research will argue otherwise.
Scripture is replete with passages that proscribe the taking of human life and cite God’s blessing upon the human person who as a result has fundamental dignity. However, arguments against ESC research and against the humanity of the embryo will be countered by statements such as “We’re all going to die anyway,” so why not permit the exploitation of ESCs? Such an argument, though, proposes that some persons are “sub-human,” or that we have a “use-by date,” said Bishop Fisher.
Fourthly, the social dilemmas of stem cell research were discussed. Bishop Fisher questioned the motives for the “embryo industry” that has made large sums of money for an elite few and that risks being restricted to the rich who can pay for such therapy and research. Is the chief “driver” for ESC research an altruistic motive to save and to cure persons in need, or is ESC research based on an obsession with scientific “results”- a “technological imperative”- in which human embryos are regarded as mere commodities.
Bishop Fisher was clear that the Catholic Church is profoundly in favour of research and of scientific progress, as long as it does not impinge upon the fundamental human right to life from conception to natural death. Also, not all in a pluralistic world will agree with the Catholic Church’s stance on the human dignity of the embryo, which precludes research on ESCs. The Catholic response must be to keep open the avenues of dialogue with the world in truth and in charity. Even more essentially, the Catholic contribution to the ESC debate, said Fisher, requires a sustained and “vigourous defence of human life.”
With that, Salt + Light is deeply grateful for the indispensable role of Bishop Anthony Fisher in the advocacy for human life. Let us pray for him in his capacity as a bioethicist and in his episcopal duties of sanctifying, teaching and governing that he might continue to speak and to live the word of God.