August 13-15, 2001
volume 12, no. 142

Opening the door for moral disaster!

by Philip F. Lawler

    The short speech in which he announced his decision was a political masterpiece. But the conclusion that President George W. Bush reached on stem-cell research was a moral disaster.

    While he reiterated his opposition to the deliberate destruction of human life, President Bush nevertheless accepted the proposition that some human beings may legitimately profit from the death of others. He attempted to set limits on the use of human embryos for medical research, but his position is undermined by the logic of his own argument.

    For the first time, thanks to the President's decision, the US government will fund-- and thus the American taxpayer will subsidize-- research on tissue that only exists because human embryos were destroyed.

    Yes, it is true that Bush refused to support research on newly harvested embryos. Federal funds will only flow to those scientists who use stem-cells drawn from embryos that are already dead. So Uncle Sam will not directly subsidize those researchers who destroy human lives in order to harvest stem-cells. But the government will accept-- and pay for-- the results of that harvesting. Isn't this a bit like saying that we oppose the killing of human beings in concentration camps, but we are ready to buy the gold teeth taken from the corpses?

    The President suggests that in the case of the existing stem-cell lines, already harvested from human embryos, the moral question is less acute. After all, he points out, the life-or-death decision has already been made; these embryos have already been destroyed.

    Now apply that logic to the thousands of frozen embryos now preserved in laboratories. They are not yet dead, but they soon will be; their fate has already been sealed. If they are not used for research, the vast majority of them will simply be discarded. So, since they are slated for destruction, why shouldn't we profit from their demise? The logic of the Bush policy leaves no compelling answer to that question.

    The proper answer-- the morally consistent answer-- is that human lives should never be used as a means to an end. Mature, thinking adults should never accept the exploitation of other human beings. Perhaps Christians should attack the "demand side" of the stem-cell research equation by organizing the patient's equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. We might join in a pledging that we shall refuse any medical treatment that requires, or profits from, the deliberate killing of human beings.

    And then there is another dimension to this debate-- an issue that has rarely been raised amid the clamor over stem-cell research. If it is immoral to extract stem cells from human embryos, isn't it also immoral to leave those embryos in a freezer? Isn't it immoral to sacrifice several dozen embryos-- human lives-- in the quest for one successful pregnancy? There too, in the process of in vitro fertilization, we are exploiting some human lives for the benefit of others.

    This year's debate over the fate of frozen embryos would not have occurred if, years ago, the world had listened to the wisdom of the Catholic Church, and recognized that the immorality of in vitro fertilization. We are tempted to exploit these embryos for stem-cell research only because we are already exploiting them to achieve pregnancy by artificial means.

    It is a great blessing when a barren couple conceives a child-- just as it would be a great blessing if patients recovered from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease as the result of stem-cell research. But if the blessed result is achieved through the destruction of human lives, then the cost is too high.

Philip F. Lawler, editor, Catholic World News and Catholic World News Report

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August 13-15, 2001
volume 12, no. 142
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