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Issue Date:  September 15, 2006

Sorting ethics, hope in stem cell battle

Developments in science and technology occur in such a rush that ethics, which tempers what we can do with what we ought to do, seems always in a race to keep pace.

From the development of nuclear weapons that threaten global destruction to the appearance of health care technologies that promise interminable extensions of “life,” we keep arriving at points that require us to agonize over possibilities that range from breathtaking benefits to incalculable human degradation.

So it is with the matter of stem cell research, an issue over which the country is deeply divided and against which the church in some areas has arrayed its considerable resources, energy and authority. One of the major tests will occur this November in Missouri, where voters will consider whether to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would protect embryonic stem cell research done in accordance with federal law, which means a virtually unregulated enterprise. The amendment would also prevent human cloning, which by the state’s definition “means to implant in a uterus or attempt to implant in a uterus anything other than the product of fertilization of an egg of a human female by a sperm of a human male for the purpose of initiating a pregnancy.” In other words, creating an embryo in the lab would not be considered human cloning.

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Our age faces ultimate questions that were unknown to previous generations. Not only do we face the question of what we should do versus what we can do, but we also face the array of considerations that splay out from each new advance in technology. What is more important, the individual good or the common good? Who has access to the benefits of new technology? Who pays for it? Would the common good be better served if the money were spent elsewhere? Is stem cell research saving life or destroying it?

Catholic leaders in Missouri are pulling out all the stops in an effort to defeat the constitutional amendment. They compare the research to abortion, and have enlisted clergy and other groups within the Catholic community to battle against formidable odds. The open question is how many Catholics will be persuaded to follow the bishops and how many will be convinced by other arguments that see a significant difference between a microscopic collection of cells in a petri dish and a human embryo.

The bishops and others leading the fight against the amendment are also battling an American pragmatism that says if something’s broken and we have the tools to fix it, we will. Stem cell research thus is seen in a utilitarian light, for the technology holds the promise of spectacular cures to debilitating illnesses. The allure of that approach has scrambled the usual pro-life coalition, causing defections from the ranks by such pro-life stalwarts as Republican Sen. Bill Frist and Sen. Orrin Hatch, who commented, “After much thought, reflection and prayer, I concluded that life begins in, and requires, a nurturing womb. Human life does not begin in a petri dish.”

Finally, the bishops are fighting big money. For all the high-minded talk about cures, a very real incentive is the potential for huge profits on procedures and patents. And once that begins to occur, it might be difficult to stop the process. We know already that reproductive technology that can provide valuable information for health care providers is now being used by couples to select for frivolous traits and characteristics. Don’t expect news releases announcing the pursuit of scientific utopia. It will just begin to happen.

Granted, few will look to Hatch for ultimate guidance on such complex biological matters, and certainly not on the metaphysical question central to this issue: What is it, exactly, we are dealing with?

On this, the bishops fighting the amendment are as certain that it is life as is Hatch that it isn’t. To be thorough, it is essential to note that Catholic moral theologians and even official church teaching have recognized that in theory we cannot be certain when human personhood starts, but we have to act in practice as if it is present from the moment of conception. The senator, meanwhile, is expressing the sentiments of probably a majority of Americans (if polls are any indication), including Catholics. Do people hold these opinions simply because they don’t want to believe the church? Or because it is more convenient to dismiss the mass in the petri dish as inconsequential? Or because they’ve arrived at some calculus that sees potential benefit to humankind as outweighing the moral significance of what’s in the lab?

Probably all of the above, plus their own experience. For nature is, the experts tell us, rather cavalier when it comes to new life. As many as 35 percent (some studies go as high as 50 percent) of all fertilized human eggs are spontaneously aborted and often, we are told, without the woman’s knowledge.

While what is is not an absolute guide for what should be (otherwise we’d die far more frequently from appendicitis, not to mention heart disease), it is not altogether insignificant that nature is less than reverent when it comes to natal life. Simply put, when bishops talk of Holocaust or genocide in connection with stem cell research, the heavy-handed language does not comport with everyday human experience. There is a disconnect between such language and the significance people know that society and the church attach to those earliest forms of life when they end naturally.

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Within the church, too, responsible thinkers raise serious questions about the claim that life at its earliest stages is worthy of all of the respect and protections we would afford life at a later stage. In a June 2004 NCR story on the subject, Catholic ethicist Thomas Shannon said the problem with the church’s view “is that embryology is a process. Fertilization itself is a process. It takes about 24 hours for the sperm to penetrate the ovum, and then for the chromosomes to line up, then for the union and formation of the DNA to occur, and then to have a beginning of cell division.

“One thing important to me,” he said, “is that in the blastocyst at the beginning, the cells have capacity to become other organisms. The cells have a unity, but it is not a unity of individuality. They are going in a direction, but they are fluid. It is at this point that twinning can occur, and a number of other things that are not individual. It takes a week to two weeks before the cells are committed to the body parts they will become. This is a critical time. For the first two weeks, the organism is not an individual, and there can’t be a person without an individual.”

The same line of thinking was reflected recently in comments by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini during an interview with Italian journalist Sandro Magister. “Martini says he is in favor of the use of ‘the oocyte at the stage of two pronuclei,’ ” wrote Magister. “In his judgment … this stage does follow fertilization, but in it ‘no sign of an individually distinguishable life yet appears’; it is not yet an embryo and thus it can be manipulated without any objections of a moral nature.”

It is difficult, of course, to tease out such distinctions and gain wider discussion of such questions in the heat of a campaign for an up-or-down vote on a lengthy and dense constitutional amendment that is represented on a ballot in a few lines.

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There are reasons aplenty to question the wisdom of the ballot initiative in Missouri on both moral and practical grounds. (Indeed, should any state constitution contain an absolute protection for a specific industry?) The sad fact is, however, that the bishops in this debate as well as the abortion debate end up preaching to the choir because they insist on using the heavy artillery rhetoric that permits no response; because they insist in using the most extreme examples to make their case; because they pronounce, dismiss all questions and, in the process, eliminate any chance for real dialogue. When the discussion begins by comparing stem cell experiments to murder or to Nazi experiments, it doesn’t leave much room for discussion or persuasion. Those who aren’t on your side are unlikely to stick around to receive even more accusations, much less to consider more deeply your point of view.

Issues involving the boundaries of life and humans’ activity in altering those boundaries are going to increase, not diminish. We need leaders who can engage the issues, arguing persuasively for protecting life without resorting to outlandish language or comparisons; who seek to build bridges to the scientific community instead of just rebutting it; and who, in a pluralistic culture, can respect legitimate disagreement. If we have learned to accommodate in our sanctuaries those who design, manufacture and use weapons that kill in massive and indiscriminate ways -- weapons that threaten life as we know it -- we can certainly find a way to approach, in civility, those puzzling out the complex possibilities and dangers on the edges of life.

Separating out what we can do from what we ought to do is an enormous and difficult project that, at its best, requires trust and goodwill across many boundaries.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2006

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