Embryonic Stemcell Research

President Bush's recent veto--his first in six years--of a bill for government funding of research with new embryonic stem-cell lines may have been consistent with his 2001 decision, but it does nothing to really clarify the debate. In fact, it re-enforces the moral ambiguity of that first decision, which was to allow such research, which he deems immoral, to go on, just as long as the public doesn't have to pay for it. And although we also must credit him with skill in handling this political hot-potato, his attempt to split hairs illustrates the complexity of the matter.

At the heart of the issue is the moral status of the embryo.

For many, of course, the embryo at this stagehere we're talking about the first week or so past conception--is merely a "thing", even though it already possesses its own distinctive DNA pattern.  So while it is clearly a human embryo, it is not an "embryonic human", even if one likes to draw such fine lines with words. 

For others, however, even at this early stage, the embryo is already a human being, even a human "person" with a "soul"even though at such an early stage it can divide into twins or more, or even if already twinned, can sometimes revert back into a single organism.  For those who think this way, harvesting stem cells, whether from cloned embryos or from leftovers from fertility clinics, is clearly immoral and cannot be condoned -- even if lives could be saved as a result.

However, there is a third position which is not very well understood.  It would hold that although the embryo may not yet be a distinct person, it is already so far developed in that direction that to interrupt that development for therapeutic purposes is the next step down a "slippery slope" that has already led to attempts at reproductive cloning as well.  This seems to be the reasoning behind the official position taken by the Catholic Church, which on the same basis condemns artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization, and abortion at any stage, andto be consistent in view of the whole natural process as designed by God--~

The problem with this latter argument is that it seems like one of those cases where strict logic is at odds with reason or even common sense.  This becomes evident when one considers that the Church condones, even sometimes promotes, natural family planning (often called the "rhythm method") of avoiding conception, which hardly seems very "natural" in the context of married life. Not only that, the Church also even allows "indirect abortion", that is, the removal of mislocated ("ectopic") fetus when it would endanger the mother's life.  In both cases, there certainly seems to be an interruption of the natural process for a good enough reason.  So why not an interruption of an embryo's earliest stage of growth if this too might lead to saving lives?

It would seem then that not only has medical science, but the Church itself has, one way or another, already entered upon the slippery slope of reproductive control and technology.  Thus the real problem and the  only realistic course of action cannot be trying to reverse what progress has been made, but instead deciding where, in the future, to draw the line.

R W Kropf  8/20/06                                

Embryos.mss  570 words     06-08-20.html