Monday, October 17, 2005

Moral Clarity on Stem Cells

The Washington Times published this article today on attempts by scientists to get something like embryonic stem-cells while allegedly getting around the ethical problems.

The two methods mentioned in the Times' article are as follows: first, extracting material from embryos without destroying them; the second is to clone an embryo that cannot be implanted in a womb.

I am skeptical that the second idea originated from "ethical" concerns: rather, I believe this is yet more evidence of the truly sinister aspect of this whole slimy business: what do you do if you're so successful that the "surplus" embrionic human beings aren't enough fodder for your indusry? Hence cloning.

For those who find this area murky, there are three questions to ask that help clarify the whole matter, morally.

1. Would you do what you propose to do to a human being at a later stage of development? In the first instance, the answer is "No" -- we don't do invasive surgery on people without their consent.

2. If we're talking about procreation -- about bringing a new human life into existence -- then is the child being procreated in a human way? And to spell that out very plainly, are a man and woman, married to each other, conceiving this child through a natural, human sex act?

Catholic teaching doesn't say technology can't be used: remember, per Aquinas, all technology is itself a fruit of God's creation, and hence has a good purpose which we should seek to realize. But the purpose or meaning of technology is to serve he purpose and true end, or telos, of human existence.

So, technology that facilitates truly human means of procreation are commendable -- that is, until the humanity of the act of procreation is itself violated: hence, when conception moves from the intimacy of conjugal relations to a laboratory (recall that's where all those "surplus" embryonic human beings came from!)

All the frenzy about artificial means of conception would be really funny if it weren't so tragic, because it reveals our schizophrenia as a society: on one hand, we act as if we had a conception-deficit; simultaneously, we spend incredible engergy on combatting the conception-surplus, with human pest-control (contraceptives and abortion). The only real crisis is our frustration at not being our own gods.

3. No human being can ever be treated as a means to someone else's ends.

Pro-creating a human being that he or she may serve the advancement of another human being is always wrong. Always. A L W A Y S.

One final point.

You often hear the claim: we should keep morality/religion out of science.

Challenge that slogan every time it crops up, because it's really a lie, and here's why.

What is really at issue is not, free science vs. science-yoked-to-religion-or-morality, but rather, two competing moral/religious frameworks for scientific endeavor.

I very much doubt those who repeat this slogan really would defend Joseph Mengele, who performed experiments on the people imprisoned in the Nazi death camps. But the moment one says what he did was "wrong," that's a -- say it with me -- "MORAL JUDGMENT."

When people justify experimentation on embryonic human beings, pursuit of cloning, they argue for . . . wait for it . . . "all the good it will do for us." Well, if we extract out all moral reasoning from scientific enterprises, how do we assign any meaning to the word "good" in that last statement? In the end, one arrives not at a scientific idea, but a moral one: it's "good" to help people (be healthy, wealthy or wise) -- but why? Why, for example, shouldn't human beings be sacrificed for the flourishing of animals and plants? (Don't kid yourself -- some people believe they should be.)

So the truth is, WHOSE moral vision will govern? That's the issue.

And one reason to stand our ground, as Catholics, on preserving the natural order of procreation, and to refuse to use any human beings as instruments of others' well-being, is precisely because such moral principles are clear and timeless, and work for everyone. They are expansive: that is, they err on the side of including people in the embrace of dignity and rights, rather then err on the of exclusion, which is the problem of legal abortion, manipulation of embryonic human beings, etc.

They are non-discriminatory: regardless of race, economic status, disability, sex, religion, nationality, culture, language, sexual orientation, or what-have-you, you are protected: you have the same essential dignity as everyone else.

Yes, we Catholics derive these moral absolutes from God and his Church, but also from reason, and from Natural Law which is discovered by reason -- informed by faith, but not dependent on it. But we can -- and ought -- to appeal to others on the basis of their reason and their prudential value: i.e., even if you don't like the source of this principle, do you like the effect? It protects you, too.


Anonymous said...

Great work. "The only real crisis is our frustration at not being our own Gods." I will remember this line and hopefully will remember it at the right times.

You have asked before when complimented on your homilies,what was it that we liked or thought was good. I know this was not a homily but it was still a clarification on a moral issue. So what was helpful? As usual you presented the problems or fallacies in a logical manner and used a question in your analogy, ie:"Would you do what you propose to do to a human being at a later stage of development?" I would probably say, "You WOULDN'T do what you propose..." and end up putting my listener or reader on the defensive right away. Your approach is not only smarter but also kinder in a more respectful way.

The real crisis is our frustration line is so good because even though I agree completely with everything you said about embryonic stem cells ( and what the Church teaches) this is applicable to other areas of my life. So even when you are preaching to the choir you have still put forth a thought that gets me to consider other issues that I am putting myself ahead of God or my desires ahead of His will.


CCP said...

With all due respect Father, religion has NO place in science.

YOu religionists are the ones who set up this paradox and impose it unfairly. Science is science and religion is religion. It's clear to the rest of us.

Frankly, I'd be more convinced of your "moral clarity" if you'd clean house in your own church before seeking to impose that "morality" on others.

Fr Martin Fox said...


It would be helpful if you answered the question posed in my comment: if you really believe religion has no place in science -- then on what basis can you say that Joseph Mengele was wrong?

Or do you not say Joseph Mengele was wrong?

Anonymous said...

Father - The National Catholic Bioethics Center (which is a pretty reliable group regarding Catholic moral issues) published in their Fall, 2005 journal a proposal signed by 35 moral theologians, priests and scientists that involved a procedure to produce "embryo-like" stem cells w/out the embryo.

This is not, as has been previously reported the production of a handicapped embryo that lives a very short time. Rather, it is the production of something closed to a tumor in a lab dish that can not and will never become an embryo.

The individuals who signed this proposal (which incidentally is a perfect collaboration with scientists and religious) are pretty rock solid.

This week, in the journal Nature, scientists successfully did just this with mice.

People of Faith and people of science both seek the Truth and the Truth has one source. God. God is not conflicted with science and only scientific fools are conflicted by God.

See Interview with Fr. Berg regarding this at:

Father, contact me privately and I will send you the 3-4 page document if you are interested.

Yours in Christ,


Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for the update. That clarification gives me hope that perhaps we can really get around the terrible moral dilemmas involved.

I'll check out the info, and any readers who check it out ahead of me, feel free to post comments.