Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the October AD 2001
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    Question: Why is the Church against stem cell research? against cloning?

    Answer: To begin with, there are other kinds of stem cells that do not present the same moral problem as human embryonic stem cell research. The embryonic research invariably results in the death of a human being; something of far greater moral consequence than the loss of a few cells. But to properly understand the moral objection, it is necessary to start with the far broader questions of tampering with human reproduction, and the sanctity of human life. It should also be noted that these are not, strictly speaking, "Catholic issues," for they relate to the natural moral law, binding on everyone.

    The moral law excludes just about every form of artificiality in the process of human reproduction. You don't hear about it as often, but the Church is opposed to artificial methods of conception just as it is opposed to such methods of contraception. The opposition arises from several problems introduced by interference in the natural reproductive process.

    The primary end of marriage is, of course, the procreation and education of children. God created men and women as He did to ensure the continuation of His earthly creation, and to populate the kingdom of Heaven with His rational creatures. He raised the natural institution of marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament for Christian people. To artificially circumvent this primary end of matrimony is to circumvent God's design, and to tamper with His means of procreating individual souls.

    The marital relationship of a man and a woman is the divinely designated building block of human society. At least since the time of Christ, it must be monogamous, and our Lord clearly implies that this was the intent of His Father "since the beginning."1 Marital intimacy plays a key role in keeping that unit of society together, as well as in replicating it. Introducing technology into the relationship destroys some of the "you and me together, with no one else" attitude that ought to exist between husband and wife. This seems to admit of degrees -- most Catholic theologians would not deny the use of simple, non-invasive measurement devices like a calendar and a thermometer to a couple trying to achieve or postpone pregnancy -- but objections arise quickly if third parties are factored into the process, the measurements, or the means become more invasive or artificial -- the objections are absolute when the genetic material comes from a third party.

    Much of the technology employed in artificial conception or contraception is based on the seriously flawed notion that a human person has no individual rights of his own until some arbitrary stage of development has taken place -- some number of "trimesters," partial birth, total birth, or some event even later along in life. Given this notion, the technologist feels free to dispose of "surplus embryos" as he sees fit. In the case of artificial contraception this usually means any and every embryo; in the case of artificial conception it usually means all but one or two. From the moral perspective, we are talking about taking innocent human lives for personal gratification or convenience. From the Christian perspective we must add the dimension of souls that will be purposefully created for death; very likely without Baptism. (The reader should understand that many modern contraceptives work by causing an early term abortion, not by preventing conception, and that virtually all in vitrio fertilizations produce "surplus" offspring which are destroyed.  All such techniques are intrinsically murderous.)

    The existentialism of the Modernists helps to justify this sort of behavior through the reasoning that it is the "acting person" who perfects himself and determines his own essence. Existentialism facilitates the false notions that one becomes a person only gradually, as one grows and becomes more deliberate in "acting" -- that no human essence or nature exists from conception, but is formed only through personal action.

    With surprising candor, Frank Morriss wrote in the Wanderer:

Unfortunately, the post-scholastic Catholic education based almost entirely on existentialism has denied many Catholics the knowledge to think adequately on this subject, and the ethics of compassion without ontology [the study of being, specific nature, and essence] has led them into the error of believing that nothing that is done can be wrong if it relieves suffering. Thus the administration of a sort of epidermal anesthetic to the Catholic conscience in this matter of linking medical science to the destroying of human life.2

    Even from a purely humanistic point of view, existentialist reasoning is extremely dangerous -- if we admit to the idea that we can make a judgement as to when someone becomes a person, it is relatively easy to judge against more and more developed beings, particularly if those beings are "inconvenient." If we can kill an embryo at three days, why not three weeks, three months, or even three years? How about if is found to be "defective" in some way; maimed? retarded? Negro? Jewish? Catholic? or whatever?

    Even if the other factors did not exist, one still has to consider the motive behind artificial conception or contraception. In reality the other factors will always exist, so it is never as though a good motive can make the artificial action good (it will always be somewhat bad) -- but the motive might well make already bad actions worse.

    For the sake of discussion, based solely on motive, and ignoring the other objections, you might be able to justifying cloning yourself to make that twin brother your mother never gave you -- but if your reason for cloning little brother is to have him around for spare body parts, your motive is sufficiently evil in itself.

    Genetic engineering involves a similar problem of motive. Again ignoring the other objections, you might make a case, say, for eliminating hereditary diseases or for making a man more resistant to environmental ones -- but if you are trying to breed a race of super-men to make war on the neighboring country, or a race of sub-men who enjoy doing the dirty tasks of society, your motive is again sufficiently evil in itself.

    President Bush made the distinction between experimentation on "existing" lines" of embryonic stem cells and the production of "new lines." It is unlikely that we will stay put very long on that "slippery slope." Particularly if research on the "existing" cells doesn't produce anything spectacular right away, the usual suspects will be calling the Bush policy "inhumane" and "against progress." Any and every failure to produce results can be blamed on the "narrow range of available material." It is rather likely they will call for wider research no matter what the outcome, for the same people see embryonic cell research as a justification for abortion -- maybe even the forced abortion of "medically" selected people.

    Also to be addressed is the use of an innocent human's body without consent. We don't even experiment on cadavers without their prior permission or that of the next of kin or both -- here we are talking about living beings; beings that could theoretically grow up and be citizens! Consider the concerns expressed by the Catholic Medical Association:

We are concerned that the President failed to address the very real scientific possibility that these human embryonic stem-cell lines which already exist could contain new whole living human embryos produced in vitrio through the natural process of "regulation" (such as happens in natural human monozygotic twinning, and in animals in vitrio and in vivo). The intentional killing of these culture-produced living human embryos would constitute a grave moral action as well.3

    There is also an issue of complicity. Until abortion became an issue, all civilized people condemned the medical experiments of the Nazis on prisoners. Reputable scientists wouldn't even dream of incorporating Nazi data into their own research. Today such experimentation is lauded, provided that it is carried out on the new "undermench" of the 21st century, the unborn human. Imagine the outcry that would ensue if a few scientists decided to dig up the graves at Auschwitz to experiment on the genetic remains!! Just go to the beach and dig up a few turtle eggs to experiment on -- the forces of "society" will very quickly tell you just who is "inhumane" and "against progress." The Catholic Medial Association put it this way:

We are concerned that even the use of the product of such killing is somehow perceived as morally acceptable, as with the President's acceptance of the use of already existing human embryonic stem cell lines. Such use remains morally complicit in the original act of the killing of those innocent human beings…. We are concerned that by ignoring the morality of complicity, the President has established a political wedge that can be exploited later…. We are concerned that such denial of moral complicity also opens the financial floodgates on Wall Street, encouraging even further exploitation of these most vulnerable of innocent human beings as mere biological commodities.4

    Some scientists hold that non-embryonic stem cells work as well or better than embryonic cells - they cite nasty mishaps when embryonic cells have been used in attempted cures.5 They may be right, but in a perverse way, that just calls for more research on embryos, not less. Making the case that non-embryonic research is safer or more productive at the moment says nothing for the future. Our society daily demonstrates an increasing lack of prudence and temperance when rightly or wrongly convinced that money can buy some new luxury that didn’t even exit a year or two ago. It is interesting to note that the "usual suspects" have kept such information buried in the back pages if it is printed at all.6

    With regard to both cloning and stem cell implantation, one might add a final moral objection: They are awfully unreliable. An informed patient might be willing to take a risk on an experimental treatment if nothing proven is available -- but how can one justify taking such a risk for a person who would not even exist if the risk were not taken? Replying to one congresswoman's Anna Eshoo (D-CA) claim that " we stand on the brink of finding the cures to diseases that have plagued so many millions of Americans…" columnist Charles Krauthammer replies:

The brink? The claim that cloning, and the stem cells it might produce, is on the verge of bringing a cure to your sick father with Alzheimer's or your debilitated mother with Parkinson's is a scandal. It is a cruel deception perpetrated by cynical scientists and ignorant politicians. Its purpose is clear: to exploit the desperation of the sick to garner political support for ethically problematic biotechnology.

The brink? Cloning animals, let alone humans, is so imperfect and difficult that it took 277 attempts before Dolly the sheep was cloned. Scientists estimate that the overall failure rate for cloning farm animals is 95 percent or greater. New experiments with cloned mice have shown gross deformities. And here is the worst part. We have no idea why. We understand little about how reprogrammed genes work. Scientists don't even know how to screen with any test for epigenetic abnormality.

In other words: Even if you could grow embryonic stem cells out of grandma's skin cells, we have no idea yet how to regulate and control these cells in a way to effect a cure. Just growing them in tissue culture is difficult enough. Then you have to tweak them to make precisely the kind of cells grandma needs. Then you have to inject them and hope to God that you don't kill her.

We have already had one such experience, a human stem cell experiment in China. Embryonic stem cells were injected into a suffering Parkinson's patient. The results were horrific. Because we don't yet know how to control stem cells, they grew wildly and developed into one of the most primitive and terrifying cancers, a "teratoma." When finally autopsied—the cure killed the poor soul—they found at the brain site of the injection a tumor full of hair, bone and skin.7

    If we are "at the brink," it is certainly a good time to back away! Certainly a good time to consider what is moral and good, rather than what is merely expedient for a few desperate souls. The Church is not against science and is strongly in favor of making life easier for the barren and the sick. But God's laws must be obeyed, and no human being must be deprived of his most basic rights.

Q&A Notes:

   1. Matthew xix: 3-12.

   2. Frank Morriss, The Wanderer, July 19th 2001, p.4.

   3. August 9th 2001 statement of the Catholic Medical Association, USA (The Wanderer, August 23rd 2001, p. 4).

   4. Ibid., Catholic Medical Association, USA.

   5. E.g. Melanie Hunter, "Bush Backs Research on 'Existing Stem Cell Lines'", Aug. 9, 2001; Christine Hall, "Embryonic Stem Cells May Be Second Best,", Aug. 10, 2001; " Adult Stem Cell Miracle Breakthrough Reported in Canada," Newsmax, August 14.

   6. Ibid,, August 14, 2001.

   7. Charles Krauthammer, The Weekly Standard, August 20th 2001


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