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Obama's Mistake on Embryonic Stem Cells


Confusion for Sale
It's More Than Politics

It’s been a few months since President Barack Obama took office, and, true to his campaign promise, he has reversed President George W. Bush’s limitation on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Whatever good there is to be said about President Obama—and there is plenty—funding embryonic stem-cell research really was a step in the wrong direction.

Embryonic stem-cell research, with all of its unproven potential, is fraught with deep moral complications. After all the hair-splitting and shades of nuance, we are left with this: Embryonic stem-cell research requires the destruction of human life, even though that human life began in a laboratory. Like abortion and other unjust killing, it is morally wrong.

Before we go further, let’s be clear: This debate is not about stem-cell research in general. Stem cells, which are used to cure illness and chronic conditions, are readily available without destroying human life, in ways that are morally sound, for example, from adult bone marrow or skin tissue. This argument isn’t even about early-life stem cells. Recent discoveries demonstrate that these highly desirable stem cells, with their many flexible qualities, are also present in the placentas and umbilical cords that are discarded after every birth.

This field of study is so new that, in fact, who knows what discoveries await us in stem-cell acquisition and research? Within the past year, for example, in a discovery hailed by the journal Science as “breakthrough of the year,” adult stem cells were changed to offer many of the multiple uses of embryonic stem cells. Bravo!

But let’s not be confused. Contrary to what President Obama said March 9, when he lifted the federal funding ban, religion has everything to do with this.

At the March media conference, President Obama stated that, with embryonic stem cells, there is a “false choice between sound science and moral values.” Mr. President, you’re wrong on this one. Sound science is not morally neutral. It enables the good and the bad: the heart transplant as well as the nuclear bomb, abundant agriculture as well as gas chambers, and so on.

We cannot properly divide religion from science, no matter how neat that separation might seem. You admitted as much when, in the same speech, you decried human cloning.


Confusion for Sale

Why is there such confusion about embryonic stem cells? Let’s just say there are strong forces afoot. We have Hollywood celebrities (not, generally, known as moral guides) who have gathered around the cause. The tragic case of the late Christopher Reeve, who died after injury-related paralysis conquered him, was a heart-wrenching argument about the good that embryonic stem-cell research might do. But Hollywood talked little of the moral dangers.

More important, we have huge corporate interests lining up to make a fortune from the products that will result from embryonic stem-cell research. These are the people who bring us all manner of drugs that we are instructed to “ask our doctor about” in their prime-time commercial messages. Money talks.

Perhaps most important, though, and most confusing, is the presence of tragic, painful situations that might be eliminated by the advances in medicine that embryonic stem-cell research purportedly offers. It was these that our president talked about as he lifted the ban March 9: “[S]cientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions,” he said. But at what cost?

It’s an ancient moral debate, one in which the Catholic Church has been clear for centuries: The end does not justify the means. Even if, by killing an undeveloped human being, a very young human life, an embryo, one could cure diseases of children and adults, it would not be right, say Catholic ethics. We’re not allowed to take human life, unless we are stopping someone from killing.

In fairness, it should be noted that President Obama’s executive order also addressed research on other types of stem cells. We applaud that. Generally speaking, his announcement was meant to boost our national commitment to scientific research, another laudable goal. But the old saying “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” can be applied here.

The March press event was a political event—nobody would say that isn’t so. In his speech, the president said a “majority of Americans—from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs—have come to a consensus that we should pursue” embryonic stem-cell research.

With all due respect, we disagree. The Catholic faithful, who represent a considerable portion of the U.S. electorate, will oppose harvesting embryonic stem cells at the cost of human life, when they understand the issue.

Let’s be open to science, sure, but let’s not open the door any further to the destruction of human life. Let’s fund scientific research into the most promising cures for all manner of ailments, but let’s not do it by taking human life.

Sadly, there is no consensus among the majority in our society on this issue, contrary to the president’s comments.

Let’s focus on exploring this new field in morally sound ways.—J.F.


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