Doug Kmiec: Embryonic stem cells at the foot of the cross
To avoid cooperating with an intrinsic evil, this trembling hand is not to take hold of any medicine or participate in any medical treatment advanced by research involving the destruction of a human embryo.
Yet, I am not. While I believe the President’s desire to separate science and politics is well considered, there can be no separation from ethics, even as that immediately begs the question: whose ethics?
The President’s announcement was not without some ethical limit. Following almost verbatim the recommendation of the National Academies of Science (NAS), Obama articulated that his policy would “never open the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” At the same time, the President indicated that stem cells derived from what scientists call somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which some respected Catholic ethicists view as the exact equivalent of cloning, will now be eligible for federal funding in order to assist in ascertaining a cure for Parkinson's and other serious ailments, like cancer, heart disease, and spinal cord injury.
Again, the distinction the President drew between cloning for reproduction and cloning for medical research is one that had been recommended to the government over seven years ago by the NAS. However, in the Catholic tradition which sees the objective truth of the human person beginning with the formation of the pre-implantation human embryo that is a distinction without an ethical difference. As Cardinal Rigali succinctly observed: “vulnerable human beings cannot be treated as mere products to be harvested."
There is the rub: the NAS, the President, a host of other religious traditions, understand life and personhood to be associated with a later point. For these Americans, there is no ethical dilemma to be confronted. The great promise of embryonic stem cell research to our brothers and sisters who differ from us on when life begins seems wholly motivated by love of neighbor and, as the President said, “the care of human suffering.” This is especially so to the extent that the President's new policy does not contemplate creating new embryos for the sole purpose of scientific research but putting to use so-called “surplus” embryos created by couples pursuing in vitro fertilization (IVF). However, the Church has recently re-stated its categorical prohibition of IVF, too, so even utilizing that which would otherwise be discarded by the larger society, for Catholics only multiplies the ethical offense and increases the Catholic burden in public debate.
What can be done now? Our faith enjoins upon us the effort to protect life even incrementally, if we are unable to do so fully. The President’s stem cell announcement indicates that administrative regulation is now to be drafted to guide the research. It is incumbent upon the leadership of the church and Catholics in the medical and scientific professions to participate in that process. At a minimum, one would think it would be possible for there to be a preference given for the use of adult stem cells which goes none of the ethical problems associated with the destruction of an embryo.
Of course, in terms of our own moral integrity that is likely not enough. To avoid cooperating with an intrinsic evil, this trembling hand is not to take hold of any medicine or participate in any medical treatment advanced by research involving the destruction of a human embryo. Easier said than done – or by me, even written down. But then, in this Easter time we are reminded that we belong to a Church where the very son of God allowed himself to be put to death so that others might live.
Douglas W. Kmiec is the Caruso Family Chair & Professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University School of Law and the author of “Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question About Barack Obama” (Overlook/Penguin 2008)
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Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for March 2014
Respect for Women: That all cultures may respect the rights and dignity of women.
Vocations: That many young people may accept the Lord’s invitation to consecrate their lives to proclaiming the Gospel.
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