Doug Kmiec on Stem Cells

In case you missed it on our home page, here is Douglas W. Kmiec's insightful essay on stem cells and church teaching. Among the questions Professor Kmiec addresses is where the line of "personhood" should be drawn.

Scientists and ethicists challenge the pro-life office’s proposition that the personhood line cannot be drawn better elsewhere. Many non-Catholics propose the point at which an embryo is implanted in the womb as one that can be easily demarcated scientifically. From a Catholic perspective, the proffered line might be argued to better coincide with Jeremiah’s reference to God’s knowledge of us “in the womb,” and even the statement of the pro-life office itself.  After all, the pro-life office recognizes that the capacity of the embryo to mature depends upon being placed in a nurturing environment—i.e., the womb. In the end, however, the significance of the womb inexplicably falls away, with Donum Vitae simply announcing:  “it is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.” (DV, I, 5; also cited in the Catechism 2275).

For more read "Embryonic Confusion."

Tim Reidy

7 years 11 months ago
Kmiec's essay, I think, fails because it appeals to the constructionist fallacy of the human being. Kmiec's argument, as I understand it, is that at one point the embryo isn't  person (and therefore it is acceptable to do things-abortion, research- to this alter quid) and then, one day, it develops into a person (after which is it unacceptable to do things to it).  This is completely magical thinking and not at all related to the scientific reality of embryonic development. Richard Stith, a professor at Valparaiso University Law School addressed this fallacy with a metaphor.  Imagine in the pre-digital photo days, you are on a trip to Mexico.  Traveling through the jungle, you take a Polaroid snap of a jaguar.  As the paper comes out of the camera, I snatch it out of your hand and rip it up. The jaguar is gone. You will never get that picture again.  You are very angry at me for destroying your picture.  And I say, "That wasn't a picture!  That was just a brown smudge." Debating the origin of  the "picture-hood" of the image misses the point.  The image was there.  It was simply developing. And I destroyed it.  I didn't destroy a brown smudge.  I destroyed your picture and you are right to be angry. The picture is not like a car that is assembled from different parts and is not actually car until it rolls off the assembly line.  A picture is an image that begins its "life" as invisible to the eye until it develops-but it is always there. It's picturehood is well-established as a simple matter of fact-only someone with an emotional reason for disputing it (ie., me, the person who wants to justify the photo's destruction) would attempt to disagree. In the same way, a person is not something that is assembled of disparate parts that only becomes human after a certain point on the assembly line (i.e., the womb).  It is much more like the picture that IS even though we can't yet see it.    A person exists from the moment of conception just like the picture exists at the moment it is snapped. Attempts to obfuscate this fact do a disservice to both faith and reason. Greg Popcak
7 years 11 months ago
Gregory Popcak; I would agree that the church's entire sexuality morality is based on the fact that both egg and sperm have a sacred ontology and that they should only be combined in marital union. However we know that 60%-80% of fertilized  embryos never implant in the uterus. They cease to exist in a matter of hours. To call those sacred hours old  embryos fully human beings stretches my notions about God's creative intent. 60 to 80% of 'these sacred embryos' never get past a few cells?  We can acknowledge and act on what we as Catholics believe but  can we foist this notion on ohers. namely that this 'potential' life is  morally equal to personhood.?
7 years 11 months ago
The fact that "the pro-life office recognizes that the capacity of the embryo to mature depends upon being placed in a nurturing environment" does not mean that our deciding to deprive the embryo of a nurturing environment makes it all right to use that embryo to our benefit.  In fact, it is our moral obligation to ensure that any embryo created outside of a nurturing environment is put into a nurturing environment.  Given that the numbers of embryos in non-nurturing environments far exceeds our capacity to provide nurturing environments is no justification for treating them as mere biological stuff.
7 years 11 months ago
There are interesting comments on the Kmiec article page. It is not magical thinking to state that at some point before gastrulation (actually all points before gastrulation) the soul could not be present because the organism does not behave like a soul is present.  After gastrulation, it does behave that way.  I don't buy Kmiec's environmental analogy either, the issue is the ontology of the blastocyst. I like the polaroid example, since it proves my point.  Your analogy would apply to blatocysts only if you could tear the picture of the jaguar in two and get two whole pictures.  Until Evangelicum Vitae, which was ghosted by a cardiologist and not an embryologist, everyone accepted the fact that getting two pictures meant that a blastocyst was a potential human life.  I know the author of the Encyclical insists that he was not breaking any new ground on this issue or on the denial of nutrition to the comatose - however his assertions are as faulty as his findings. It is popular in the movement to claim that ESCR takes a life.  It does not, since the part that would become human is not in any way damaged when the Chorion is removed from the Blastocyst.  If you remove the Chorion from an embryo after gastrulation, the embryo is doomed.  The fact that at different points the embryo responds differently is significant for determining whether the blastocyst has the qualities of personhood, or is merely human tissue which could become one (or two or three or eight).
7 years 11 months ago
Michael, If the chorion is taken off a blastocyst, then that blastocyst can no longer develop.  To say that the blastocyst does not die from this, is rather like saying that if a surgeon removes your esophagus, it does not kill you.  However, not having an esophagus will cause you to starve to death, just like not having a chorion would have prevented you from being able to develop a placenta. The situation is that no matter how much we may hope to be able to recognize a point of ensoulment, we cannot.  It is not simply a matter of agreeing to agree.  That you are intent upon connecting gastrulation with ensoulment seems only to be due to that being the point at which we can conclusively know that a blastocyst is human.  However, its humanness existed from the point of fertilization, not from the point at which we conclusively identified it.  We know this for two reasons.  The first is that it was always composed of human biological stuff, and the second is that from the point of fertilization, not later, it began to develop without any further outside influence either initiating that development or directing it. Additionally, the fact that a single blastocyst sometimes divides in such a way as to produce more than one person has not been shown to be the result of any outside influence.  Therefore, it is just as valid to say that the quality that leads to this phenomenon is also present from the moment of fertilization, and that preventing the further development of any blastocyst not only ends one life, but possibly ends many.
7 years 11 months ago
A child born in a slum with little food and no medicine and no love and no future - does that make it a non-person? A lack of a  "nurturing environment" seems like a lame argument and is used often to justify abortion. And, in a sense to justify the acts of war - the enemy hardly seems to be a human person. Due to Original Sin no embryo will reach it's potential but that doesn't negate that it is on the path to personhood. 
7 years 11 months ago
Marie, we don't contend that blastocysts are "biological stuff" because we have ulterior motives for their usefulness in science.  Rather, we claim that they are "biological stuff" because that is how they behave.  After gastrulation they behave like persons, prior to gastrulation they do not in very significant ways (like not dying when you take off the Chorion).  Unless for every soul that has lived, there are 3 or 4 who were mere blastocysts (some of whom being half animal), you can't accept their ensoulment prior to gastrulation. Accepting ensoulment at gastrulation also ties the hands of the pro-choicers - as if they agree with this definition, they cannot justify abortion on the grounds that the fetus does not have a soul.  While it may be possible to accept abortion as a legal act, it can never be accepted as moral or morally neutral.
7 years 11 months ago
  I think the Polaroid analogy is apt. If the issue of destructive ESCR wasn’t so serious, I would find the attempts to find moral demarcations in an embryo’s developmental journey almost comical. Biologically, a human being comes into existence at the moment of the union of male and female human gametes. Everything that follows is merely (and miraculously) the result of the pre-programmed biochemical reactions that culminate in a unique individual. While true that physiological differentiation and specialization take place over time, they are the fine carpentry already plotted on the DNA blueprint that became in-built at the time of conception. Above and beyond the human genotypic and phenotypic realities that are activated at conception, and religious arguments aside, there is another compelling reason to tag conception as the point where an embryo’s moral protection begins. Each of us took the same uninterrupted developmental journey along a continuum that some now parse into ethically-differentiated markers that they believe allows the interruption and termination of the journey of others. Not only is this hubris, IMO, but it is also ingratitude for the forebearance our progenitors showed when we were once unicellular and embryonic human beings.
7 years 11 months ago
If you take off my esophagus, I would die.  Embryonic Stem Cells, however, do not die when the chorion is removed.  They don't develop in to children, but if they were frozen and not implanted they wouldn't anyway (which is what Kmiec is saying).  The cells left over are identical to those extracted from my bone marrow.  If you took a quantity of the stem cells out of a frozen embryo and implanted the embryo and cultured the rest, the embryo would grow normally. While you cannot prove ensoulment has occurred (although I might argue that, since after gastrulation the ontology of the embryo clearly shows that whatever keeps an adult's vital functioning going is present in the embryonic development - there is no mystery here, only mystification that the Pro-life Office is undertaking because no one in Rome is allowed to admit error), you can prove when it has not.  The simple proof is that a blastocyst will continue to grow until gastrulation with a non-human parent.  Unless you are willing to grant an immortal soul to that entity, every blastocyst can be classified as not yet an indvidual with a soul.  There is nothing tragic about a dead blastocyst and the only thing comical is the Pro-Life Office of the USCCB and the Vatican doing philosophical handstands in an attempt to hide the fact that it is in error about the science and natural law on this issue (and birth control as well).
7 years 11 months ago
Michael,  If we did surgery to remove your esophagus, the surgery would not kill you.  In fact, you could continue to live and grow if we intervened with other medical technology.  We would, however, have inflicted upon you a handicap that would lead to you not being able to survive naturally.  You say, "if you took a quantity of the stem cells out of a frozen embryo and implanted the embryo and cultured the rest, the embryo would grow normally", but also that removing the chorion prevents the embryonic stem cells from developing into children.  You seem to be contradicting yourself.  I do not believe you mean to say that stem cells can be removed and then the embryo could be implanted with no consequence to its further development.  I think you only means that the rest of what is left continues to do what it is intended to do, just as various parts of your esophagus-less body would still engage in their normal functions until the moment of your death from starvation.   As to ensoulment, a dog supposedly has no soul, but if we were to debate when a dog's life begins, I believe we would even more definitely conclude that it was when it's first cell was created-that is, when the dog mother's egg was fertilized by the dog father's sperm.  We would recognize that unique and special kind of cell as the beginning of that dog because it embodies for the first time the entirety of that particular dog's genetic code and because it has the special capacity to replicate itself automatically toward something significantly more complex than just another copy of itself.   The only reason souls are significant to this debate is because it is a significant thing to deprive a soul of its journey through this life, since the purpose, supposedly, of human life is for the soul to take its journey, while the purpose, supposedly, of other life is to be useful to the human life.  "Proving" the point of ensoulment is irrelevant to determining the beginning of life. 
7 years 11 months ago
Remember that in the days before formula and breast pumps, it was the death sentence for an infant not to receive human milk at the breast, if not from its mother, at least from a nurse.  Presumably, according to Doug Kmiec's reasoning, infants unable to latch or whose mother died, unable to find a "nurturing environment" would not possess the right to life.  After two, three thousand years after billions of human embryos have been killed but science finds a way to nurture an embryo to viability without implantation in a mother, are we all just going to say, "Oops, our bad!"
7 years 11 months ago
Michael,      I understand your point better now.  However, I think controversy arises from the fact that the scientific study of the process does not acknowledge the individuality of the conceptus/blastocyst.     That you are you and I am me depends in large part upon our having been unique, single cells at one time.  Obviously, we had to pass the gastrulation point in order to get to the point at which we are now, but that point was not definitive of our uniqueness.  Uniqueness was established at the point of fertilization.     Gastrulation is significant only in a limited way.  It marks the point where the observer can identify the species, and except for a cross-species conceptus/blastocyst, it is just a continuation of what began at the point of fertilization.  For cross-species conceptus/blastocyst it marks the point of death.     That some conceptus/blastocysts are naturally culled at the point scientists have named gastrulation, does not make all conceptus/blastocysts the same until gastrulation.  In other words, it is not that "life does not effectively begin for individuals until that point for any complex species", but only that life definitively ends for certain individuals at that point.
7 years 10 months ago
Identical twins are unique, even though genetically identical - and that uniqueness comes with the gastrulation of each. Ontologically, meaning in terms of how they occur in the world, all blastocysts ARE the same, whether they are doomed or destined to gastrulate.  If one does not have a soul, neither does the other.  In determining whether ending its growth is murderous or not, whether it has a soul is absolutely important to the moral discussion. Of course, how you define what a soul is becomes an important feature of that.  The nature of the growth and development changes at gastrulation.  It is not until gastrulation that the ends contributed by both the parents are present.  The starter may be whirring, but the engine does not engage until gastrulation. If I sound like I am hung up on this stage, it is because Embryologists are hung up on it as well.  Anyone who claims that Catholic moral teaching on the subject has its basis in embryology has not read the defining textbooks, which also share this view.  It is troubling that they don't make a stronger statement on this, since doing so would also send a clear message about whether abortion can be considered legitimate.  Clearly if gastrulation is the point of ensoulment, abortion cannot be considered medically ethical unless a life would be saved by having the procedure.  Of course, most abortionists believe a life is always saved through a legal abortion - as the older practioners remember the days when women died performing abortions on themselves.  While the pregnancy may not endanger the life of the mother, a self-induced abortion does.  Even though I don't agree with their logic, I do understand it.  In order to honestly engage on this issue, understanding such a point of view is essential.  Deliberately ignoring such a point of view inevitably leads one to desire the death of those like Dr. Tiller.  Ignoring this point of view also sabotages any effort to seek common ground and thus reduce, and possibly eliminate, the need for abortions.
7 years 11 months ago
Marie, I can see where you would be confused.  First, if you remove the chorion, the remaining cells, which do not die, are ontologically no different than harvested adult stem cells.  Second, if you leave the chorion intact but remove a share of the stem cells then implant the blastocyst - the blastocyst will develop normally (assuming it would anyway).  I was providing two different examples.  I did mean to say that you can remove some of the stem cells (certainly not all of them) with ABSOLUTELY NO CONSEQUENCE to the development of the child.  Prior to gastrulation, no cell has an intended purpose.  All stem cells are pluripotential.  An esophegus will develop normally, as will all the other precious little parts - again assuming that the genetic code of both parents is whole and complete and compatible.  There is no telling until gastrulation. If you come to grips with that fact, you will grasp the moral consequences - or lack thereof - of ESCR. Dogs have exactly the same dating as to the start of life.  All complex sexually reproduced complex organism have Gastrulation as a jumping off point.  Life does not effectively begin for individuals until that point for any complex species.  If a dog and cat were to mate, the conceptus and blastocyst would develop until gastrulation - which would not occur successfully because the genetics are incompatible.  They would develop until that point, however.  This has been my point all along.

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