Last Friday, the National Institutes of Health issued new regulations governing embryonic stem cell research. They are better than many expected and the anticipated outcry from Catholic circles has not materialized.
In fact, most of the criticism of the guidelines is coming from the research community. "I am really, really startled. This seems to be a political calculus when what we want in this country is a scientific research calculus," Susan Solomon, chief executive of the Stem Cell Foundation told the Washington Post. This is as succinct a statement of the new creed of scientism as you can find. Scientism, unlike science, seeks to answer philosophic questions that are not answerable by scientific methods: There is no repeatable lab experiment that will yield a moral judgment. Scientism either denies the questions exist, or asserts a base utilitarianism or, still worse, holds to a biological reductionism that is as dogmatic and illiberal as Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. In his new book "The Future of Liberalism" Alan Wolfe shows why liberals, as well as Catholics, should be wary of scientism.
Cardinal Rigali issued a statement in his capacity as head of the USCCB Pro-Life Committee and it was balanced. He correctly noted that the new guidelines use federal money to destroy embryonic life for the first time and that the Catholic Church opposes this vehemently. Rigali also praised the limits set by the regulations: "
It is noteworthy that, despite calls for an even broader policy by some in Congress and the research community, the draft guidelines do not allow federally funded stem cell research using embryos specially created for research purposes by in vitro fertilization or cloning." The Cardinal called on Catholics to lobby Congress to defeat efforts to overturn this limiting regulation. He might also have noted that the consent clause in the new regulations is actually stricter than that in the Bush policy.
Robby George, the Princeton University Professor who can often be seen carrying water for the Republican Party, admitted that he was surprised by the limits contained within the regulations, specifically those that prevent the use of cloned embryos. He warned that the NIH can reverse itself on the limits imposed at anytime, and called for vigilance. Still, he allowed that the results were partly the work of Obama’s pro-life supporters lobbying the administration. Professor George is scheduled to debate the issue with Pepperdine law professor Doug Kmiec at an event sponsored by the Catholic University Law School on May 28.
So, what is the bottom line? The Church, if not all of her members, believes that embryonic stem cell research is wrong. This is a decidedly minority view, and no one should be surprised when politicians follow the majority view. After all, funding for embryonic stem cell research was not on the ballot last year: John McCain was pledged to the same policy. But, on the all-important issue of setting guidelines for the research, it appears that the ethicists have so far trumped the more extreme claims of scientism. We should remain vigilant as Cardinal Rigali instructs and we must continue to educate the culture about why we believe human life, even when it comes in the form of a few cells, is sacrosanct and inviolable. A human embryo is not an acorn. It will not grow up to be an oak tree. It is as human as you or me, just very small and very vulnerable.