In my home state, there’s been a good bit of discussion about embryonic stem cell research. One Catholic politician, a Republican state senator, has twice sponsored a bill to permit this sort of research, arguing: “Under the bill, couples with leftover embryos at in-vitro fertilization clinics could donate them for research rather than have them discarded by the clinics. I just want to give these couples another option other than destroying them.”[i]
This position has generated a good deal of confusion among pro-life Catholics, who are tempted by the thought that these short, abused lives might be given some earthly value after all.
It’s an old seduction. We forget that the value of a human being isn’t in what he does or what he has but in that he is. It is good to be.
The Catholic Church has defended this fact for as long as it has existed but the heinous actions of various 20th century scientists caused the Church to address specifically the problem of experimentation on human beings. [ii] Among these documents are:
- Pius XII, “The Intangibility of the Human Person,” Allocution to the First International Congress of Histopathology, Sept. 13, 1952.
- Pius XII, “Moral Problems in Medicine,” Allocution to the Eighth Congress of the World Medical Association, Sept. 30, 1964.
- John Paul II, “A Patient is a Person,” Address to Two Congresses of Physicians and Surgeons, Oct. 27, 1980.
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, fifth edition 9-09.
They boil down to this: you can’t experiment on humans unless they give consent (or, if they're unable to consent, their lawful guardian does) and the experiment has a reasonable hope of benefiting the individual who is the subject of the experiment. Obviously, someone who has been murdered can’t himself benefit from discoveries made using his tissue.
Is this really an important prohibition? If the babies are going to die anyway, why can’t their parents donate their bodies for research? What does it mean to insist that “a human subject cannot be used merely to gain medical knowledge which will serve the common good?”
One can certainly understand the matter when one considers the actions of “patriotic” doctors who forced their victims to endure painful, debilitating, and often fatal experiments in order to “help the troops,” test new drugs and treatments for injuries and illnesses, or limit “undesirable” populations. The Church is not only concerned about protecting vulnerable individuals from tyrannical governments but from oppressive social movements that pit a more powerful faction of society against a weaker. Science at the service of genocidal impulses is diabolical. In the words of Pius XII: “Can the public authority, whose function it is to care for the common good, give the doctor the power to make experiments on the individual in the interests of science and the community, in order to invent and try out new methods and processes when these experiments infringe on the right of the individual to dispose of himself?...The great postwar trials have brought to light a frightful quantity of documents testifying to the sacrifice of the individual to "medical interests of the community." In these acts are found testimonies and reports which show how, with the assent, and sometimes even by formal command of the public authority, certain centers demanded a regular supply of men from concentration camps for their medical experiments. We learn how men were delivered up to the centers; so many men, so many women, so many for this experiment, so many for that...” [iii]
With the advantage of several sickening historical examples before us, it isn’t too difficult to understand the Church’s position on this. Catholic politicians wouldn’t be easily enticed by legislation to allow experimentation-resulting-in-death on unwilling death-row prisoners, no matter what the promised benefit.
The issue of research that begins with the deliberate killing of an embryo, however, arouses the same confusion that abortion does: is the embryo a human being? Is it alive? Is it a person with moral rights? If, as the Church insists and science demonstrates, the answer to these questions is “yes,” – the embryo has human DNA, just like any other human being; the embryo will grow and thrive under favorable conditions, just like any other human being; and every innocent, living, human being has a moral, natural, unalienable right to live out his natural, earthly life – then the monstrosity of embryonic stem cell research isn’t confusing at all. It’s just wrong.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block writes from New Mexico and is the editor of Los Pequenos newspaper.
[i] “Senate OKs stem-cell bill,” Associated Press (Silver City Sun News), 2-20-09
[ii] All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, in this article may be found in two documents: “Medical Research and Experimentation on Human Subjects: General Principles” and “Commentary on Medical Research and Experimentation on Human Subjects: General Principles.” This can be found at: www2.loras.edu/~CatholicHE/Arch/Procedures/Medical_research.html
[iii] Pius XII, “The Intangibility of the Human Person,” Allocution to the First International Congress of Histopathology, Sept. 13, 1952.