Debating the Embryo's FateREV. TADEUSZ PACHOLCZYK
The debate over embryonic stem cell research continues to escalate in our country, and remains a topic of significant public interest.
Because of this growing public interest, I am often invited to participate in public debates on stem cell research and cloning. My sparring partners are usually other scientists, politicians, or public policy experts. The debates are typically held at universities or colleges, and audiences generally have the opportunity to ask questions of both sides afterwards.
Having participated in a number of these debates over the past few years, I've been surprised by how often certain arguments are trotted out with great solemnity, as if they were obviously right and true, even though a casual observer can quickly recognize their notable flaws and inadequacies.
I did my best to avoid letting our discussion slip into a polemic about what might work best, about efficiency, even though this was one of the key arguments used by my opponent. He stressed how embryonic stem cells appear to have certain desirable characteristics, and may one day be able to work better than adult stem cells, and if cures end up being derived from embryonic stem cells in the future, then, in effect, it must be ethical to do such research, and to destroy human embryos. This argument in one form or another has been put forward widely by the media, and has won over many Hollywood personalities, patient advocacy groups, and Washington politicians.
After sharing this Philippine experience with my audience at the debate, I asked them a question: "Could a scientific research program like that ever be ethical?" The obvious answer to that question reminds us how ethics must always come before efficiency. Taking the lives of young humans (whether as little boys or little embryos) cannot be pronounced ethical simply because it might result in huge benefits to older, more powerful, or more wealthy humans. The fact remains that objective moral limits constrain all areas of human endeavor, including the practice of the biological sciences. Whenever the siren-call of healing and progress is blaring in our ears, we are obliged to be particularly attentive to those absolute moral boundaries.
A second argument that comes up quite often in debates about the embryo is the so-called argument from wastage. The starting point for this argument is the medical observation that most pregnancies don't survive and are flushed from a woman's body. One well-known embryology textbook summarizes it this way: "The total loss of conceptuses from fertilization to birth is believed to be considerable, perhaps even as high as 50% to nearly 80%". The fact that most embryos don't survive is then taken and used as a justification for destroying embryos to get stem cells. As another opponent of mine once put it during a debate at Southern Methodist University in Texas, "If Mother Nature destroys so many embryos naturally, why shouldn't we be able to as well? Why get all worked up about using frozen embryos in research, when so many early embryos die naturally from miscarriages?"
But the difference between a natural miscarriage and the intentional destruction of embryos is precisely the difference between the unfortunate case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome vs. the unconscionable case of smothering an infant with a pillow. What Mother Nature does and what I freely choose to do as an acting person are two separate realities, not to be confused. To put it dramatically, the fact that Mother Nature sends tsunamis that claim the lives of thousands of victims doesn't somehow make it OK for me to shoot a machine gun into a crowded stadium and claim thousands of victims of my own.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk. "Debating the Embryo's Fate." Making Sense Out of Bioethics (June, 2007).
Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D. writes a monthly column, Making Sense out of Bioethics, which appears in various diocesan newspapers across the country. This article is reprinted with permission of the author, Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) has a long history of addressing ethical issues in the life sciences and medicine. Established in 1972, the Center is engaged in education, research, consultation, and publishing to promote and safeguard the dignity of the human person in health care and the life sciences. The Center is unique among bioethics organizations in that its message derives from the official teaching of the Catholic Church: drawing on the unique Catholic moral tradition that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason and builds on the solid foundation of natural law.
Inspired by the harmony of faith and reason, the Quarterly unites faith in Christ to reasoned and rigorous reflection upon the findings of the empirical and experimental sciences. While the Quarterly is committed to publishing material that is consonant with the magisterium of the Catholic Church, it remains open to other faiths and to secular viewpoints in the spirit of informed dialogue.
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Yale University. Father Tad did post-doctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard Medical School. He subsequently studied in Rome where he did advanced studies in theology and in bioethics. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2007 Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D.
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