Germany and Italy Have Done It — Shouldn’t We?

FATHER TADEUSZ PACHOLCZYK

Laws like those in Germany and Italy, while they would not stop every injustice done to embryos, could go a long way towards stemming the tide and assuring that further forms of laboratory barbarism and human exploitation do not become commonplace.

Nearly 500,000 human embryos are currently stored in liquid nitrogen tanks in fertility clinics in the United States, a number comparable to the population of a mid-sized city like Cleveland or Tucson. By contrast, only a handful of human embryos have been frozen and held in storage tanks in the entire country of Germany.

The reason for this striking difference lies in the fact that Germany enacted an Embryo Protection Law during the 1990's which included provisions outlawing the freezing of human embryos. Italy has similar legislation in force. Both countries closely regulate in vitro fertilization treatments, and allow the production of no more than 3 embryos at a time, all of which must be implanted into their mother. Both countries forbid the production of extra embryos, experimentation on embryos, embryo cloning, and genetic testing of embryos.

The United States has largely failed to establish any reasonable legal or ethical framework to regulate its own multi-billion dollar infertility industry, and the result has been aptly described as a kind of "Wild West of Infertility," a lawless frontier where nearly anything goes, including the routine freezing of scores of humans who are still in their embryonic stages. Indeed, this practice remains one of the great ongoing humanitarian tragedies of our time.

Not much ethical reflection is needed to appreciate the serious injustice involved in freezing another human being. The freezing and thawing process subjects embryonic humans to significant risk, and up to 50% of embryos may not survive the process. In many cases, stored embryos end up being abandoned by the couples who create them, condemned to a kind of perpetual stasis, and locked in time in the harsh wasteland of their liquid-nitrogen orphanages. Countless parents then find themselves caught in agonizing dilemmas about what to do with their offspring held in suspended animation. This injustice, once it has been foisted upon human embryos, is then used by others to argue on behalf of an even more egregious offense against their dignity, namely, the destructive strip-mining of embryos to acquire their stem cells.

The argument that embryos will "just be thrown away anyway" has been very effective in convincing lawmakers and politicians to rally on behalf of scientists who desire to destroy human embryos for research. By appealing to a kind of American pragmatism that tries to "maximize return on investments," the embryo's subjugation has become nearly complete in our society, as he or she is reduced to a mere "thing," an object to be manipulated -- valuable primarily for how he or she can serve the interests and desires of others.

While the language of embryonic stem-cell scientists and their supporters remains thoroughly professional, it still exudes, in the words of Rosen, “an unmistakable whiff of cannibalism.”

Dr. Chi Dang, a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, building on the argument that frozen embryos will otherwise be discarded, put it this way during a recent interview: "The question is: Is it ethically more acceptable to destroy these embryos by pouring acid on them, or do you deploy these clusters of cells to create new cell lines that could benefit us in the future?" By promoting such false dichotomies and constructing these kinds of ethical sand castles, we have begun to slip into a kind of complacency, a deadening moral slumber regarding our most basic duties towards the weakest and smallest of humans.

Writing in the New York Times, Gary Rosen once observed that even a basic course in Ethics 101 ought to be enough to let us see the problem here, namely, that we should not be treating other people as a means to our own ends, but as ends in themselves. Yet even the most basic ethics can be hard to square with the efficient, cold, clinical discussions of "harvesting embryos" and "deploying clusters of cells." While the language of embryonic stem-cell scientists and their supporters remains thoroughly professional, it still exudes, in the words of Rosen, "an unmistakable whiff of cannibalism."

In the United States today, we urgently need Embryo Protection Laws. The temptation to dehumanize our own human brothers and sisters is a perennial one, hearkening back to the time in our country when slaves could be considered three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation. Treating embryos as zero-fifths of a person constitutes an even more deplorable human rights violation. The smallest members of our human family deserve legal protection. Laws like those in Germany and Italy, while they would not stop every injustice done to embryos, could go a long way towards stemming the tide and assuring that further forms of laboratory barbarism and human exploitation do not become commonplace.

 

 

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk. "Verbal Engineering and the Swaying of Public Conscience." Making Sense Out of Bioethics (February, 2009).

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.

The Center publishes two journals (Ethics & Medics and The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly) and at least one book annually on issues such as physician-assisted suicide, abortion, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. Educational programs include the National Catholic Certification Program in Health Care Ethics and a variety of seminars and other events.
 
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.

THE AUTHOR

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 © 2009 Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D.




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