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Abortion issue clouds stem-cell discussion


Mark Waymack made an important contribution to the stem cell debate with his focus on ethical and some political questions surrounding the issue in “Stem cells stir controversy: Ethical, political questions surround research efforts” (NCR, July 27). Now that the pope has entered the debate with an uncompromising rejection of using embryonic stem cells for research as, using his word, infanticide, the debate is receiving worldwide attention.

When the Vatican confirmed that Pope John Paul’s condemnation of the use of human embryos for stem-cell research (issued in the papal audience with President Bush at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, on July 23) was absolute and allowed no exceptions, the debate on the morality of using stems derived from embryos reached a new level of intensity for politicians, research scientists and others.

President Bush deferentially said that he would “take that point of view into consideration as I make up my mind on a very difficult issue confronting the United States of America.” In other words, the president indicated he did not consider the papal statement as the last word on this issue, and his final decision reflected that. Where does the papal condemnation leave Catholics as they wrestle with this most sensitive issue? Well, it leaves them with an important, authoritative pronouncement from the pope that they, too, should take into consideration as the debate continues. In other words, Catholics are free to disagree with the papal teaching and come to their own conclusions provided they accord respect to the pope’s teaching and have well thought out reasons for their own conclusions. It appears from surveys that a majority of Catholics favor proceeding with stem cell research.

As regards the status of papal teaching on stem-cell research, the following considerations are relevant:

The pope did not invoke infallible authority in making his pronouncement, nor could he have done so since the subject is a new one and the necessary conditions for saying this is a matter of faith for all Catholics are not fulfilled.

No pope has ever made an infallible pronouncement on a concrete moral issue in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic church.

Noninfallible pronouncements like the one under discussion here are technically called authentic, which means they are reformable, since they are subject to being in error.

The question as to when a fertilized ovum becomes an inviolable human person is still an open one in Catholic teaching. A continuous position, ultimately going back to Aristotle in the 4th century before Christ, and one endorsed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, is that the process of animation or ensoulment is gradual. This means the early cluster of cells produced as the embryo develops after fertilization is human life, but it is potentially, not actually, a person.

This means that the pope inflated the moral status of embryo stem cells when he equated their use in medical experimentation with infanticide.

When the right to life of the embryo is invoked in this debate, a counter right must also be recognized, and that is the right to health of persons who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s, Tay-Sachs and Parkinson’s for which stem-cell research may provide cures. When rights conflict, as they do here, the rights of existing persons take precedence over potential persons.

Eminent Catholic moral theologians such as Daniel C. Maguire of Marquette University and Christine Gudorf of Florida International University endorse positions similar to those expressed here. So does orthodox Jewish theologian Laurie Zoloth-Durfman of San Francisco State University (see www.religiousconsultation.org/stemcell).

Maguire argues correctly that the “shadow of the abortion debate darkens this discussion, especially in the halls of government.”

The above argument is premised on the position that strict ethical guidelines be put in place regarding the medical use of stem cells. Among these would be a stipulation that the stem cells be used for alleviating human suffering in finding cures for debilitating diseases but never to enable cloning of human or semi-human beings. Perhaps also prior consent should be obtained for the research from the donors of eggs and sperm.

One can favor stem cell research and oppose direct abortion, since they are separate moral issues.

Fr. Paul Surlis was professor of moral theology and social ethics at St John’s University, New York. He is now retired.

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001