“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 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 process.
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 (No. 86).
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.
LifeNews Note: Denise Hunnell, MD, is a Fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International. She writes for HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum. A version of this article appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald.