Investigating the fine line of legality in the SF Bay Area

A Priest and a Law Professor Weigh in on Stem Cell Research

July 4, 2015

What is a person? When does one become a complete person? Who has the right to declare or deny one’s personhood? Such queries hurricane around stem cell research. Defining personhood is a tricky subject, and the law still contains grey areas that spark conversation and change.

There are two types of stem cell research, using adult and embryonic stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells are taken from the embryo and most debate circles around the use of embryonic stem cells. On the other hand, adult stem cells from bone marrow or any developed tissue are tricked into believing they are a specialized cell the patient is in need of and divides itself to create more cells.

Father Xavier Lavagetto and Professor Henry T. Greely of Law and Genetics at Stanford University shared their thoughts revolving around stem cell research, representing two prominent theories in the field.


Father Xavier Lavagetto

Catholic Church at Stanford University

Courtesy of Kathi O’Leary

A representative of the Catholic Church, Lavagetto firmly believes that all life is sacred and should be preserved; thus, “when there’s no destruction of a potential human life, the church totally has no objections, whatsoever. The sky’s the limit, and [the church] would be a 100 percent in favor of that research.” For example, adult stem cells from bone marrow or a patient’s own body are tricked into acting like a different type of cell that patient is in need of. Such technique not only saves the patient’s life, but also retains the patient’s life and identity.

The main principles of Catholicism focus on how every life is sacred and everyone is made in the image of God. As a result, “[t]he problematic is when you simply have a fertilized egg, and then you destroy the life [inside],” source said. Using pluripotent stem cells is seen as removing life from a human being with life endowed by God, a destruction of life in the church’s eyes.

Lavagetto also discussed key ethical dilemmas lawmakers face everyday, such as the separation of religion and state. While Lavagetto finds Christians who demand the law to bend to what their religion dictates lack firm reasoning, he also pondered how religion can play into law making and ethical arguments. Lavagetto explained, “I think we’ve got to learn, if we’re going to make ethical arguments, that we [could make] ethical arguments that are simply not based on my faith. Though my faith may motivate, my faith can stand alone.”


Professor Henry T. Greely

Law and Genetics at Stanford University

Courtesy of L.A. Cicero

Professor Greely displayed respect for the other side’s perspective when he said, “The Catholic position, although I don’t agree with it … I respect it .. .because it’s intellectually consistent.” Greely, a professor of law who works in bioethics, admits that he cannot pinpoint when one becomes a person; however, “they need to have some parts of personhood to be treated with respect.” As a result, Greely believes that although an embryo “has taken a few steps along the road to personhood,” he does not believe an embryo is actually a person. In addition, if the embryo is destroyed for beneficial reasons and the procedure has the potential to save lives, Greely encourages the research and believes that such procedure should be completed. Believing that his perspective fits in legal culture, Greely further bolsters his position by saying, “the Supreme Court has said a fetus is not a person.” However, Greely cautions that legal culture constantly changes and despite fitting into our culture, stem cell research “[is not] necessarily right or wrong.”

Therefore, as a proponent for research and discovery, Greely is hopeful for what the future will bring regarding stem cell research. The three most widespread procedures that are near completion encompass treatment of the spinal cord, the brain and macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is an eye disease that leads to a loss of vision. Assured by the research found and technology used, Greely feels confident that treatments for such problems will be available soon in a manner that can effectively save lives. In fact, on March 5th, a Menlo Park based biotechnology company, Asteria was the first company to successfully complete a cervical spinal cord injury procedure in Phase 1/2a. Following Phase 1, Phase 1/2a allows tests of AST-OPC1, a type of progenitor cells, for spinal cord injuries.


Through Greely’s and Lavagetto’s inputs, one can surmise that this subject cannot be boxed in by the law and is yet to gather dust. Lively debates filled with diverse perspectives only fosters innovation and more unique points of view, and the stem cell debate has done just that.  As Lavagetto said, “the more points of view the better, because no one has an absolute claim on the truth.”

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