The National Catholic Review
Understanding church teaching on stem cell research

Late last month, I engaged in a public conversation with Princeton Professor Robert George and former Vatican Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon on exploring common ground on life issues with the Obama administration. During our discussion, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., I suggested that pro-life Catholics might find a level of agreement with the White House by, among other things:

Honestly recognizing that science does not give an answer to the legal personhood question of the un-implanted embryo created in a laboratory for non-reproductive research purpose. President Obama has decided to forego this therapeutic embryonic stem cell research for now, I suspect out of respect for our faith claims, but the pursuit of common ground asks us to be cautious about overstating the science. While I fully accept the Catholic teaching, and the desire by our bishops for others as well to come to share the belief that we should treat even an embryo created in a petri dish never intended for implantation as a person, we need to acknowledge that reason here may not—yet—be on the same path as faith.

Following our conversation, it was my pleasure to receive a thoughtful note from Professor George who wrote to confirm that he shared my understanding that “science does not give an answer to the legal personhood question.” Writes Professor George:  “Science cannot tell us whether unborn human beings are persons or whether it is right or wrong to kill them. By the same token, of course, science cannot tell us whether any human being is a person and whether killing of any type is right or wrong…. Science cannot answer these questions, and scientists as such (whatever their personal philosophical and ethical opinions) do not propose answers to them.”

I agree, but I still wonder whether our understanding of the matter is in line with the public statements of the church. To be sure, the Catechism makes no claim from science whatsoever, but rather relies upon revelation. Reference is made to the Didache’s explicit instruction that “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish." The church proclaims that "human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception" by relying upon the statement in Jeremiah that “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you."

Matters become a bit more tangled, however, in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) document, Donum Vitae, where science is given a confirmatory role:

This teaching remains valid and is further confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by recent findings of human biological science which recognize that in the zygote resulting from fertilization the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted. Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. The teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable. (DV, I, 1).

The scientific suggestion reappeared this past summer in response to comments made by now-Vice President Joe Biden on the question of when life begins. In “A Statement in Response to Senator Biden” (Sept. 11, 2008), the pro-life office statement seems to rely on a claimed support from science to a far greater extent than the revelation-based Catechism:

The Church recognizes that the obligation to protect unborn human life rests on the answer to two questions, neither of which is private or specifically religious.

The first is a biological question: When does a new human life begin? ….While ancient thinkers had little verifiable knowledge to help them answer this question, today embryology textbooks confirm that a new human life begins at conception. (citation omitted). The Catholic Church does not teach this as a matter of faith; it acknowledges it as a matter of objective fact.

The second is a moral question, with legal and political consequences: Which living members of the human species should be seen as having fundamental human rights, such as a right not to be killed?  The Catholic Church’s answer is: Everybody. . . .Those who hold a narrower and more exclusionary view have the burden of explaining why we should divide humanity into those who have moral value and those who do not, and why their particular choice of where to draw that line can be sustained in a pluralistic society. . . .

While in past centuries biological knowledge was often inaccurate, modern science leaves no excuse for anyone to deny the humanity of the unborn child.  Protection of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice.

Read in conjunction with the Catechism, the statement of the pro-life office is apt to leave those seeking to understand church instruction understandably confused.  And the confusion has real consequence for stem cell research, especially as the pro-life office statement asserts that the burden of proof for any differing positions rests on others. 

Life’s Beginning

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).

The separation of Catholic teaching from modern science has consequences for both science and the church. For science, it may mean that it is wrongly ordered. As the CDF observes, “science and technology require, for their own intrinsic meaning, an unconditional respect for the fundamental criteria of the moral law: that is to say, they must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights and his true and integral good according to the design and will of God.”  (DV, I, 2)  For the church, the absence of a scientific grounding for its instruction on human personhood means that its teaching will be seen by non-believers as particularistic, rather than universal. 

In this context, is it fitting for the church to impose upon the scientist the burden of justifying any practice of which the church alone disapproves? Will the larger community accept such an imposition without the confirmatory or auxiliary support of reason? After all, it should not be assumed that the non-believer who puts these questions in this context is a moral renegade like the late Dr. George Tiller. No, the consequences of sin in the world present more moral ambiguity than that—that which is sinful often appears good, but the devil should not be thought incapable of also making good appear evil.

The Womb and Respect for Life

For this reason, a non-Catholic, be he president or the man on the street, who with respect and civility expresses skepticism over the church’s position of protecting embryos regardless of an intended and actual relationship with a nurturing environment ought not be too readily demonized. Many scientists and non-Catholics generally see the embryo outside the womb as different. Do they have a point? In both theological and practical terms, might there not be an essential difference between the blessedness of the womb and the disinterested calculations of the laboratory with its neutral protocols and scientific methods?

When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Our Lady, the request was for admission to the womb, with Mary’s answer a model for us all: “let it be done unto me.”  The magnificence of the Annunciation is echoed by the poor, single woman in modern time agreeing to carry a child to term even as she may be without insurance or even sufficient shelter.  The love—and faith—of Mary and her successor mothers far outdistance anything comparable in the research lab where the embryo results from the admixture of materials in a petri dish.

Yes, of course, the church also condemns mixing the ingredients of life in petri dishes, but pointing out to those beyond the fold an earlier arc in the circle of an argument is an ineffective tool of persuasion.  No, at least as a matter of tolerance of religious and philosophical difference, Catholics ought to concede more generously that non-Catholic scientists anxious to identify a cure for illnesses such as juvenile diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s Disease are likely doing so out of the belief that they are honoring life by caring for the well-being of their neighbor. Indeed, if a researcher had non-embryonic human cell material thought capable of reviving a patient from a comatose state, it would not take the unraveling of the lessons of the Terri Schaivo case to know what was required as ethical duty. It is highly conceivable that a non-Catholic researcher would understand the potential and duty represented by the embryo outside the womb in the same way.

Faith and Reason

Recognizing that the pro-life office is still likely to argue that scientists have not met the burden of justification assigned to them, should we deduce that the search for common ground on stem cell research is useless? Of course not, as the pro-life office has stressed, it is possible to utilize adult stem cells without the ethical conundrums associated with the status of embryos. While I get taken to task by a few of my bishop friends whenever I say nice things about the president, at a minimum it is fair to say President Obama understands our different Catholic view in favor of protecting as persons what others would see as research material, and to my mind at least, he has articulated NIH regulations that mitigate the clash.

The president is ever hopeful of building bridges. The clarification from Professor George, an Obama opponent, that the Catholic view of personhood does not claim that it has the support of modern science aligns his understanding with mine, an Obama supporter.  An agreement between a couple of erstwhile Catholic academics who may disagree on political matters is not the common ground necessary to move forward in this area, but it is a start. And if these discussions undertaken with good will permit the right hand to newly discover what the left hand is doing, perhaps we will also find a way to apply John Donne’s aphorism that “reason is our soul's left hand. Faith is the right.”

Douglas W. Kmiec is chair and professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University and author of

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Marie Rehbein | 6/30/2009 - 4:41pm

Though the question seems rhetorical, I would like to respond to Robert E. McNulty by stating that if twinning occurs six days after conception, it is a sign that God infused two souls into the embryo.

ROBERT MCNULTY | 6/30/2009 - 4:15pm

The Church has always taught that it is possession of an immortal soul which differentiates us from other creation. The  teaching on when God infuses this soul has varied..  If God infuses thIs soul at conception, what happens if twinning occurs six days later?

Marie Rehbein | 6/30/2009 - 11:38am

With regard to the points Dr. Dale and Michael Bindner are making about the degree of reverence due to a fertilized human egg, I would like to add that it is obvious that the egg that has developed past the point of fertilization is to be held in more esteem than the egg that has just been fertllized when it comes to developing public policies as to what may be done to or with them.  However, the starting point for our reverence and esteem must be the starting point of the individual, which is when his or her first cell came into existence.  Therefore, if we have competing interests to consider, the interest of the person who may be harmed by a fertlized human egg would take precedence over the interests of the fertilized human egg.  However, if we have a fertilized human egg that is the target of commercial interests that would prevent its natural development, our obligation is to protect that fertilized human egg.  If we adhere to such a heirarchy in decision-making, we are not required to consider sperm and unfertilized human eggs as anything more than biological material.

Manuel Aliaga | 6/30/2009 - 11:28am

"I do not hold with authoritarian pronouncements being the end of any matter. "

So you'd rather follow the "authority" of always tentative and shifting scientific reasonings to decide matters of life and death?

You'd rather follow the latest hypotheses available to you (which is more than likely to be overly dependent on the power of our current observation equipment, on the funding granted to research institutions, or on the strengths and shortcomings of the moral education of the current generation of scientists)?

To me that's irrational, for it doesn't take into full consideration what's truly at stake here.

Hence, the rational approach is to go with the Magisterium's authority, for, unlike science and the followers of scientism, it truly makes of human DIGNITY its central concern.

Marie Rehbein | 6/26/2009 - 11:51am

I do not hold with authoritarian pronouncements being the end of any matter.  In fact, the more authoritarian pronouncements are, the more likely they are to be wrong.  Therefore, it is not sufficient to say, "You can't kill embryos". 

Obviously, embryos can be killed, but even if we were to say "You may not kill embryos", the amount of natural embryo death would have anyone asking "Why not?".  Therefore, there is immense room for debate, which, if we engage in it, is probably very, very good for the fate of our immortal souls.

After all, we do not earn our place in heaven by being obedient to the letter of the law, but rather we contribute to our salvation by embracing the spirit of it in that then we are thinking with God in a way that presages our ultimate union with God.

James Lindsay | 6/26/2009 - 11:16am

Leonard,  The infallible teaching of the church is that you can't kill if it is possible that the blastocyst is more than potential human life.  (You can't call a blastocyst an organism, because it is unorganized - which should be a clue).  If one can argue from reason and biology, as I have, that the Church has the science wrong, then the interpretation of the teaching is wrong, even though the underlying principle (which is sourced from Thomistic and Aristotelean ethics rather than scripture).  Considering that the Church relied on a cardiologist for its scientific input, it is not at all surprising that it got the science wrong - especially when that Cardiologist was writing to affirm the biases of the Pope he was writing for, rather than providing an objective summary of current scientific thought on the start of life.

Dale Rodrigue | 6/26/2009 - 12:20am

Marie, stop putting words in my mouth. I respect your position but you don't mine.  You stated: "Dr. Dale's position on the matter seems to involve something similar to proofing yeast.  His position extrapolated to the issue of baking would seem to be that until the "yeast" is observably alive, it is not alive." PROOFING YEAST???  OBSERVABLY ALIVE???  I have stated twice,  and will do so again, these are the FACTS: the fertilized egg is NO different genetically from the parents. Even energy and ADP/ATP is derived from the sperm head.  It isn't until differentiation that it CHANGES, its cells are now GENETICALLY  DIFFERENT from its parents.  It is at this time a NEW creation, with cells and gametes completely different from the parents. This is a FACT, it is OBSERVABLY DIFFERENT and MEASURABLE DIFFERENT from the contribution of the parentS.  That is why we look different from our parents. This is when conception occurs, when someone  NEW COMES INTO BEING.  Until then it is just sperm and egg material.  That is why we look different from our parents.  This is different from your "observably alive" statement.  Your position is not based on any scientific fact, only circular thinking and  comparisons using yeast and polaroid pictures.  Your position is untenable.  If you want to believe that conception occurs at fertilization then fine.  However, if you are trying to have a voice at the table and effect national and global legislation and regulations with those  types of  arguments then we Catholics will  look foolish.  I can't imagine what the directors of NIH would say. And then who do you think will determine those regulations nationally and globally?  We need to agree when conception occurs scientifically then apply moral, philosophical and legal protections to protect these new persons. We DON'T need to use moral, philosophical and legal  arguements alone to determine when conception occurs.  Late term abortions are permitted because of legal arguments "the baby isn't alive until fully born".  However, it wasn't until medical, scientific studies and sonograms  that we began to change our view that indeed the baby was alive and Late Term Abortions are considered infanticide. Until the medical scientific community weighed in,  legal, philosophical and moral arguments against late term abortions didn't sway opinion very much.

Dale Rodrigue | 6/25/2009 - 6:24pm

Exactly right Michael.  Everybody wants to protect life.  The question is when does life start?  Unless we all get our semantics correct some will be talking about apples whereas others oranges.  It is one thing for the church to want to protect life, we all do, but it is another thing when the church wants a seat at the table to discuss how to protect life.  Then the church is no longer preaching to the choir (us) but  attempting to add it's voice (as it has the right) and affect change on a national level with (others) scientists and national leaders who may not always agree with the church's opinion.  If we want to affect national change then we have to talk the same language as everybody else.  We might wish that life begins at fertilization but it doesn't make it so unless you make a convincing sound moral AND scientific argument.  Furthermore, if the Church comes to the table and says this is what we believe, this is it and you have to make changes to the laws and regulations on a national or global level because of our authority (based mainly on non scientist religious leaders) then we will be laughed out of the room.  We won't be anymore effective at initiating change  than Jehovah Witnesses trying to change laws to prohibit blood transfusions for everybody based on what they perceive is morally correct.  Also, what concerns me is this argument that our development begins at fertilization and a polaroid image is used as an example.  It's a pretty philosophical argument but scientifically bankrupt.   If conception occurs at fertilization when the zygote is just sperm and egg material and gametes, then using the "development" argument, our development actually begins when the sperm and egg individually develop the gametes that come together at fertilization. Therefore  should we be protecting sperm and egg at oogenesis?  If so then monthly menstruation is an interruption in the development of that child. That would be a very difficult stand to take indeed.

James Lindsay | 6/25/2009 - 2:59pm

The opinion of the masses is not important.  What is important is sound philosophical reasoning backed by the science.  This is not a position of either of opinion or faith, but of reason.  We can't necessarily prove when a soul is implanted by science - although the ontology of an embryo after gastrulation seems to indicate that something unique is going on that did not happen prior to it.  What we can prove, using science and philosophical reasoning, is when a soul CANNOT be present.  If the underlying organism can be a hybrid, yet will still grow, we can safely assume that a soul cannot be present.  If you can "crack the egg" by removing the Chorion and it doesn't die, you can safely assume that it was not alive - since you didn't really "kill it."  If taking off the Chorion does kill the remaining cells, as would happen after gastrulation, you can assume ensoulment has taken place.

Writing off this analysis as simple "opinion" does not wash.  I have stated facts and none of them are in dispute.  The only refuge against them is the application of authority - however that applciation says more about the fallibility of the authority than the soundness of the argument.

leonard nugent | 6/25/2009 - 11:40am

If there is confusion let me, a simple minded person, try to clear it up. You can't kill embryos. This is the teaching of the church.  That wasn't so difficult was it?

Marie Rehbein | 6/25/2009 - 11:30am

Dr. Dale and I do apparently differ only slightly as to the beginning of life.  However, this distinction is huge in terms of deciding whether what a scientist has put together in a laboratory is just one cell within another or an individual. 

Dr. Dale's position on the matter seems to involve something similar to proofing yeast.  His position extrapolated to the issue of baking would seem to be that until the "yeast" is observably alive, it is not alive.  However, most of us tend to believe that if "yeast" shows itself to be alive, then it was alive while it was still in its package.

Most likely, Dr. Dale will take issue with my analogy, arguing that all cells are alive, but that they are not human beings, while my response to that would be that the fertilized human egg is the special case.  Two cells (living, of course) join their genetic material within one cell, thereby creating a genetically unique cell even before it begins doing what all cells naturally do, which is to multiply their genetic material and split.

Dale Rodrigue | 6/24/2009 - 8:28pm

Marie states:" Dr. Dale wishes to label as conception the point at which the fertilized egg proves itself capable of developing further,", sorry Marie but I didn't say thay.   My position is that conception begins when a new creation occurs at a later stage after the union of sperm and egg.  However, this is NOT at fertilization.  At fertilization, in the fallopian tubes, the fertilized egg is combined genetic material,  just sperm and egg material, these cells are not different from the mother and father genes.  It isn't until the differentiation occurs that you now have a totally new being with it's own genetic material different from the genetic material of the mother and father.   Furthermore, most fertilized eggs pass out of the mother and do not implant in the uterus. I am willing to agree that life occurs at differentiation, a few days after fertiliztion which is much, much, much, much  earlier than you will ever get many experts to agree to.

A fertilized egg is no different than a combination of genetic material from the mother and father, nothing new or different until differentiation. You also state: "However, it is quite obvious to most people that the moment of fertilization is the moment that a new human being begins" It's obvious? I don't know who you are talking to, possibly those who agree with your position but most people wouldn't agree and scientific experts wouldn't agree. Furthermore, just because it might seem obvious from a philosophical point to some people  it doesn't mean it's scientifically correct. The horizon looks flat to me and it  may seem obvious to me that the earth is flat but we know scientifically it isn't.   I am not trying to solve the frozen embryo problem, I wouldn't touch that with a 10 foot pole.  But we all need to talk the same language to solve this problem and we need to know the facts to make an informed decision.  Otherwise, it's tower of Babel time. I think Marie and I agree when life begins but  by only a few days.

Manuel Aliaga | 6/24/2009 - 7:04pm

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Kmiec goes back and forth between hard science and “hard” revelation (biblical literalism) as if these were the only participants in this discussion.  Kmiec does not acknowledge the role of philosophy and theology in the Christian tradition and in this discussion.

Science does not give an answer to the legal question simply because it can't provide one.  And it can’t provide one in exactly the same way it can't provide an answer to the question about the moral status of the embryo.

As a moral issue this is not a matter that can be decided by empirical science and its narrower approach to observable reality.  This is an issue that is to be decided by other rational means of grasping both what is, and what ought to be.

The Catholic tradition has always seen this as a philosophical question, as well as a moral one.

If science cannot decide this issue it can certainly inform aspects of the discussion.  Science can provide evidence in support of what is fundamentally a moral claim.  The validity of the basic moral claim, however, does not depend on the status of scientific research at any given moment.

Our moral and legal relationship to the earliest stages of our existence as individual human beings cannot depend on the latest theories available, on the power of our current observation equipment, on the funding granted to research institutions, or on the strengths and shortcomings of the moral education of the current generation of scientists.

Human life must be protected from our individual and collective limitations.  It is irresponsible to demand a “right” to experiment with human embryos until the day someone manages to persuade us that we are wrong.  Individual die hards may have closed their minds to such persuasion but as a society we should know better.

Protecting human life as sacred is the only way of placing it beyond our irresponsibility.

Marie Rehbein | 6/24/2009 - 9:08am

Dr. Dale and Michael Bindner do not want to believe that fertilization is the point at which a new person begins.  Dr. Dale wishes to label as conception the point at which the fertilized egg proves itself capable of developing further, while Michael Bindner wishes to call gastrulation the point at which it has been proved that the fertilized egg is a person.  Beyond these two opinions, there are also opinions that a person does not exist unless he has a soul, which allows for the extreme possibility that no one is a person until he or she takes his or her first breath.  However, it is quite obvious to most people that the moment of fertilization is the moment that a new human being begins, whether or not someone wishes to call that new human being a person and whether or not someone wishes to call that point in time conception.  The ethical question is not "what may we do with a fertilized human egg?", but "is one human entitled to profit at the cost of another human's life?".

James Lindsay | 6/23/2009 - 9:18am
Much as I am loathe to declare anyone a "non-person" - if only for how that sounds - it appears that my comment and the confirming comment of Dr. Dale indicate that this is exactly what a pre-gastrulation blastocyst is. Neither I, Dr. Dale nor the vast majority of embryologists would advocate any research which harvests stem cells from the blasotcyst (destroying the Chorion) if they thought otherwise. If the Church and the Movement would listen to the scientific facts rather than believeing that somehow ESCR advocates are somehow relativists or monsters, a great deal less heat and more light could be shed on this issue.
Marie Rehbein | 6/22/2009 - 11:32am
Professor Kmiec asks, "is it fitting for the church to impose upon the scientist the burden of justifying any practice of which the church alone disapproves?" I believe he is speaking of the Catholic Church in his question, and I wonder why he assumes that it is only the Catholic Church that disapproves of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR)? Using reason alone, it is possible to determine that if a scientist creates an embryo in a laboratory, then he has a moral obligation to see to it that his involvement in the natural process does not disrupt that process. That is, he has an obligation to replace that embryo into the kind of environment from which its parts came and in which it would naturally thrive. (This is where my non-Catholic, independent contemplation of the matter leads me.) Consequently, if one believes that there should be no "leftover" embryos upon which to experiment, then there is no debate about the morality of destroying embryos for ESCR (or, more technically, destroying their means of deriving nourishment should they have had the opportunity to implant in a nourishing environment). Most certainly, almost no one using simple reason at this point in time would conclude that creating embryos specifically to destroy them for their biological material is all right. It is just too obviously heartless considering that we, and all our loved ones, were once such embryos. The problem, however, is that too many moral bridges have already been crossed, to the point that we have lost sight of where we started. It was not all right for a scientist to just bring someone else's relatives into being, but we crossed that bridge anyway, because people wanted it to help them have babies. It was certainly not all right to bring them forth in numbers exceeding the extremes of nature, but we crossed that bridge anyway, because it was more cost effective that way. It is still not all right to create embryos in order to harvest parts of them, but if it leads to cures and treatments. . . Since, it continues, for now, not to be all right to bring people's relatives into being specifically to use them as biological parts, arguments for ESCR are really only declarations that it will serve as redemption for having put efficiency and financial concerns ahead of moral concerns. They are not really moral arguments, and they assert no moral obligation to do this research. Once we cross the bridge leading to cures and treatments, however, we will no longer have a moral argument against having our offspring farmed. The scientist's intentions will be the only moral standard in effect, and we will have to justify why it is that we do not just create an embryo and use it to fix whatever is wrong with us instead of expecting society to pitch in to help us live with our condition. At that point it will seem to be obvious that it is moral for one person's will to be the last word over someone else's fate so long as that someone else is not yet capable of communicating. We will have taken the position that nothing is higher than our will and our only source of guidance will the scientist, not nature, not God, and the question will be "can it be done", not "should it be done". At that point, there will certainly no longer be a moral argument to be made against abortion. The alternative scenario to this is that we permit ESCR in order to find out what it is that we do not yet know-to develop more insight and questions-and not to find cures and treatments. In this scenario, cures and treatments that involve destroying any part of a human embryo will be illegal, which will make the distinction between scientists and profiteers clear. At that point it might be legitimate for Professor Kmeic to ask a slightly different question: Is it fitting to impose upon a scientist the burden of defending his actions as moral, given that what he is doing is investigating, not exploiting?
Dr. Dale | 6/19/2009 - 4:22pm
Both the above comment and article are right on. We oftentimes equate "conception" with "fertilization". However, fertilization occurs in the fallopian tubes and the fertilized egg moves downward to implantatation "in the womb". It isn't until cell differentation that cells actually take on their "own" function. Until differentiation in the blastula/gastrula stage the "fertilized" egg is just a combination of sperm and egg gametes (genes), not a separate being but just sperm and egg genetic material. It isn't until the cells differentiate that the zygote becomes a "different being" separate from a combination of sperm and egg genes. This I feel is the moment of "conception" when the zygote becomes it's own being, a being different genetically and cellularly from either the mother or father. What we need is education in embryology, especially those involved in making ethical decisions about when life begins, perhaps bishops?
Marie Rehbein | 6/19/2009 - 12:13pm
Michael Bindner, above, states that harvesting stem cells is not murderous, because the parts of the embryo that would become a person are not killed in the process. This is the same as my arguing that removing Mr. Bindner's esophagus in order to transplant it into someone else we know and love is not murderous of Mr. Bindner, because the cause of his death would be his subsequent starvation, not the surgery to remove his esophagus. In a similarly illogical fashion, Professor Kmiec has taken the position that because we have no intention of providing a nurturing environment to the embryo, it is not a human being in its earliest stage of development, but merely biological material. This would be the same as my concluding that because I have no intention of providing Professor Kmiec with a home and food, I am morally (if not legally) free to harvest his organs. Professor Kmiec claims to be presenting the perspective of non-Catholics on the issue of ESCR, but he is not. He is offering lame excuses for allowing people to pursue their intentions no matter the principles of logic or morality this violates. It seems to me that Professor Kmiec is a black and white thinker, as are many raised in the authoritarian environment of the Catholic Church. For them it becomes a compulsion to disallow what they have been taught is immoral and unethical because they have been taught it is immoral and unethical, and if they cannot succeed at that then they feel compelled to declare it not immoral and not unethical. As a non-Catholic, I feel free to say to anyone that I oppose ESCR and that I discourage IVF because I have logically and freely determined that they do not conform to the proper disposition between humans and nature. However, I do not feel compelled to have everyone agree with me nor have them conform their behavior to my beliefs. I offer no justification whatsoever for ESCR, because I believe, freely and logically, that it does not matter if this life is easy or hard, long or short, so long as the experiences we have go toward our spiritual development. Nevertheless, I can understand that some scientists are driven by curiousity as to the functions of various parts of embryos. However, I wonder whether if it were illegal for anyone to profit from these investigations (since to my mind they are exploiting their fellow human beings in a manner similar to a slaveholder) they would continue to have such an intense interest in ESCR.
James Lindsay | 6/18/2009 - 1:54pm
Mr. Kmeic is correct, science cannot dictate when life begins. It can, however, inform philosophical discourse. Embryology shows that implantation is not so much a determinative marker as gastrulation, which is the point at which individual cells begin to follow specific genetic instructions from both parents in their growth and development rather than following a simple command to divide. Stem cell research has actually provided us information to settle this debate once and for all. Many opponents of Embryonic Stem Cell Research claim that harvesting these cells from a blastocyst is a murderous act. These opponents are incorrect, because the cells that would have become the human person do not actually die. Only the part that would have become the Chorion, and later the afterbirth, are sacrficed in the process. Ontologically, the harvested cells behave in exactly the same way as "adult" stem cells (except that because they have not gone through the quality check of gatrulation, it is unknown whether these cells would have been viable). After gastrulation, if you would remove the cells from the Chorion, you would be taking a life - which is why scientists don't experiment on post-gastrulation embryos. Most embryologists would consider this murder if you pressed them on the issue. Perhaps we should listen to their expertise.

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