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
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.
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
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
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.