Should Human Embryos be Used for Research in New Zealand?

9 February 2007

Background and Context:


In 2004 the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act (the HART Act) came into effect in New Zealand. Passed by Parliament, this Act established a legal framework for human assisted reproductive procedures such as in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and for research that uses human gametes (sperm or eggs), human embryos, or hybrid embryos (created, for example from a human gamete and a non-human gamete). Under the Act a committee was established to advise the Minister of Health on matters concerned with reproductive technology including research. Recently, the Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) after hearing public submissions recommended to the Minister the approval of research using cells from established human embryonic stem cell lines. The Ministry of Health has subsequently issued guidelines for such research. The Minister has now asked ACART for advice on whether human gametes and embryos might be used for research in New Zealand.

Such research raises serious questions concerned with moral and ethical principles, spiritual beliefs and cultural values.

In recognition of the major issues involved, ACART has produced a Discussion Paper as a basis for consultation and has asked all New Zealanders to reflect and respond with their views.

The Nathaniel Centre The New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference Agency for Bioethics, wishes to encourage parishes, as well as individuals and other interested parties, to make a contribution to the consultation on this extremely important issue.

Why is the Use of Human Embryos for Research an Important Current Issue?

At the earliest stages of human development we all existed as blastocysts - a cluster of cells that included outer cells for forming the placenta, and an inner cell mass made up of stem cells that came to form the fetus. All of the cells within the inner cell mass are initially identical; they have the potential to become any one of the more than 200 types of tissue that make up our bodies. Under conditions of normal development the cells gradually differentiate according to instructions (chemical signals) they receive.

Researchers hold that, should they be able to understand and replicate the process of cell multiplication whereby stem cells develop into the different types of human tissue, they will then hold the key to a range of important therapies. In particular, they are hoping to use stem cells to repair diseased or damaged tissue in patients, perhaps one day even grow replacement organs. Such hopes, which have been widely publicised, represent worthwhile outcomes. The dilemma is that, to date, embryonic stem cells can only be obtained by destroying the human embryo. To use human embryos in this manner raises a fundamental moral and ethical objection.

At the present time there are between 5,000 and 7,000 frozen human embryos in storage in New Zealand. Advocates of embryonic stem cell research propose that these embryos be the initial source for obtaining stem cells. The specific creation of embryos for destructive research purposes is a subsequent step.

There is another source of stem cells that can be used in research and these have already been used in medical treatments. These are called adult stem cells and are found in various body tissues such as the blood and marrow and in the umbilical cord blood. A key difference between the two types of stem cells is that adult stem cells, having already undergone a degree of differentiation, are less flexible or less 'plastic' and more difficult to culture than embryonic stem cells.

It is because embryonic stem cells are considered to be the most versatile that many advocates of stem cell research continue to push for destructive research on embryos even when other sources of stem cells exist.

What Moral Guidance Does Catholic Teaching Offer Regarding Embryo Research?

A fundamental principle of Catholic teaching is that a good outcome does not justify the means. An action that is immoral in itself cannot be justified by a good intention or a good outcome. We are defined as human beings not only by the outcomes of our actions but also by the methods we use to achieve our outcomes. Hence the old moral axiom the end does not justify the means. Equally, the methods we use for a particular outcome also define our communities and shape our world for better or worse. Therefore, in assessing particular technologies, we must consider both the means and the intended outcome.

Advances in science and technology can contribute to improving the welfare of humanity and the world in which we live, and we have a moral responsibility to embrace such developments. At the same time, some developments have the potential for serious adverse effects for society and individuals and we have a moral responsibility to oppose them no matter how noble the intention.

The destruction of human life in any form, even when done in the name of saving human lives, is a contradiction in terms and is morally unacceptable.

What does the Catholic Moral Tradition Teach about the Human Embryo?

Catholic teaching holds that without exception the living embryo has, from the moment of fertilisation, an absolute right to life. A life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother. It is already the human being it will always be and will only grow in size and complexity. On that basis all embryos are entitled to be treated with the same respect as persons.

Appealing exclusively to the future benefits that may come about from research on human embryos obscures the broader ethical issues associated with the wilful destruction of human life. Sufficient account needs to be taken of the moral harm associated with the destruction of human embryos, including the wider repercussions for society.

The Catholic Moral Tradition fully supports the desire of stem cell researchers to seek cures that may one day provide the key to a wide range of serious illnesses and diseases. The key ethical dilemma is when human embryos are destroyed in order to source their stem cells.

What Other Options are There?

Adult stem cells can be obtained from a variety of other sources in ways that do not require the destruction of embryos. Many therapies using adult stem cells are already in use. This type of research provides an ethically acceptable alternative. There is also other promising research which is seeking ways of obtaining cells with the same properties and potential of embryonic stem cells without the need to create or harm human embryos.


Catholic teaching strongly opposes the destruction of any human embryos for purposes of research.

We have a moral obligation to pursue good outcomes by using only ethical means. When those in favour of embryonic research appeal exclusively to future benefits which may result from destructive research on human embryos, they obscure a vital issue; namely the unintended consequences of research. The way we achieve something may ultimately change and undermine the greater good of the human community.

The moral and ethical questions surrounding the destructive use of human embryos are not adequately answered by appealing to the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research. This is only one small part of a proper survey of the dilemma posed by the conflicting values in question: research on human diseases and illness, and the appropriate respect due to all human life.

The protection of human life in its most vulnerable form represents an important social justice issue for our time.

How can I contribute?

Use the material in this brochure and make your viewpoints known to ACART in one of the following ways:

  • Write a letter or email and send it to ACART
  • Attend a public meeting (see ACART website or newspapers for details)
  • Organise with ACART (before 5pm Friday 2 March 2007) to make a formal oral submission
  • Post or email a written submission using the ACART submission form available on line

If you would like to obtain a copy of the ACART Discussion Paper it is available through the ACART website ( or by contacting ACART direct.

Submissions close on Friday 2 March 2007 and should be addressed to:

The Secretariat
Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology
PO Box 5013
(04) 496 2000

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For further information contact:

The Nathaniel Centre
The New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre
(04) 499 2251

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