Respect Life Month
Can we make good come out of an evil act?
Does research make us party to the murder of abortion?
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
"Federal funding for research on existing stem cell lines will move forward... While it is unethical to end life in medical research, it is ethical to benefit from research where life and death decisions have already been made.
"There is a precedent. The only licensed live chickenpox vaccine used in the United States was developed, in part, from cells derived from research involving human embryos." -- Pres. George W. Bush, (The New York Times, Aug. 12, 2001)
Can we salvage good from evil? Is it ethical to try?
Pres. Bush, in saying it is unethical to end human life for medical research, agrees with Catholic moral teaching.
"(K)eep in mind that a thousand good things must never be gained at the cost of one evil act, no matter how well-intentioned," wrote Bp. John Nevins of Venice, Fla., in a recent pastoral on embryonic stem cell research (At Our Nation's Door -- a Great Teaching Moment, July 26, 2001).
But Pres. Bush parts from Catholic moral teaching in saying that -- since evil is already done -- we should salvage something from that evil act. In his Aug. 9 address, Pres. Bush said: "As I thought through this issue, I kept returning to two fundamental questions ... if they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?"
The cited comparison to the chickenpox virus -- derived from cultures of human cells obtained from aborted fetuses -- has been used by the Bush administration to clarify this reasoning of finding "a greater good." Is it a valid comparison?
"It make me uneasy at least," says Paul Wadell, ethics professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere. "To say we can salvage a bad thing by making a good out of it? What is dubious (in the argument) is its utilitarian consequentialism. In other words, we'll accept this bad thing, this dis-value, because it produces an overall good consequence. It can become a slippery slope argument. We allow our well-being to be the determinant."
John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, agrees. "Is there any one of us," he asks, "who couldn't rise higher in life if we swept aside our scruples ... our obligation to fellow human beings?"
And we are talking about human beings. The Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life has clearly said that "the living human embryo is -- from the moment of the union of the gametes -- a human subject with a well defined identity" (Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells, Aug. 2000).
The poignancy of the issue was noted by Bp. Joseph Fiorenza, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in a letter to Congress on July 10: "In his great novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky raised the question of whether it would be right to build a world without human suffering if 'it was essential and inevitable to torture to death one tiny creature' such as an innocent child to achieve that end... The claim that destructive embryo research will achieve such a utopian end is, we believe, a hollow promise. In the meantime, however, the killing will be quite real."
But, the President promises, only those embryos already killed will be used in federally funded research.
Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., which gives ethical advice to many groups, including the Bush administration, sees a flaw in that promise.
"My problem with the president's decision is not that data is being drawn from the embryonic stem cell lines of previously destroyed human lives," he says, "but in the proximity of his decision to the entire process and the possibility that the fruits of this research will cause political pressure to build... in favor of further funding, including the destruction of yet more human beings, as well as the odious possibility of actually bringing human embryos into existence with this very purpose in mind ... In my estimation, the stakes are just too high."
Are the stakes too high? Is embryonic stem cell research wrong?
"In this instance, there's no question that this is a moral evil," says Fr. Edward Richard, professor of moral theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury, Mo., near St. Louis, who has helped clarify the U.S. church's stand on the morality of using vaccines. "Embryos are being destroyed for research."
Fr. Kevin Fitzgerald, SJ, a bioethicist at Georgetown University, also sees a direct correlation to moral cooperation with evil. Not only has there already been destruction of embryos for the current 64 stem cell lines, he says, but "this is an event which is on-going. The work, the research that will be done, can easily be translated into more embryo destruction."
And, in fact, such destruction is continuing. The Jones Institute of Reproductive Medicine, part of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, reported in July that it had created and destroyed embryos to harvest their stem cells. Their purpose? To be able to offer clients "high-quality embryos."
And what happens to low-quality embryos?
The answer brings eerie echoes to the warning from the Pontifical Academy for Life over a year ago: "A good end does not make right an action which in itself is wrong" (Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells, Aug. 2000).
As Bp. Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh said in a recent pastoral letter on medical research and stem cells:
"Once we admit, personally or societally and place into law, the presumption that we can take an innocent human life any time we want at whatever stage we determine, we put into motion a destructive whirlwind that will surely empty all technology and scientific advancement of moral and ethical restraint or true value" (Medical Research: Does the End Justify Any Means? Pastoral letter, Aug. 2001).