Safeguarding human life: the very beginning

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

Introduction Living in a culture which has lost its fundamental moral anchor, we should not be surprised at the attacks on human life, at all stages of development, in our nation. On the contrary, we must be vigilant in promoting the respect for human life, safeguarding the life of every brother and sister from the moment of inception to the moment of natural death. During the coming months, we will face a particular challenge in safeguarding human life at its very beginning.Proponents of human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research are proposing an amendment to the Missouri Constitution that would give scientists and medical researchers the right to create human embryos through human cloning (or through in-vitro fertilization) to destroy the embryos for the purpose of obtaining stem cells.The proposed amendment would also give the right to state funding for such an intrinsically immoral activity.According to plans, the amendment would be placed on the ballot for approval by the citizens of Missouri on Nov. 7, 2006. In the meantime, the proponents of human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research will be seeking signatures on a petition to have the proposed amendment placed on the ballot.The entire initiative is called, in a beguiling manner, "Missouri Stem-cell Research and Cures Initiative." It is critical that we as Catholics, true to the teaching of the natural moral law, oppose the initiativebecause it seeks to make legal the taking of human life.To sign a petition favoring the initiative is to promote the culture of death which tragically besets our nation and constitutes a cooperation in the destruction of human lives at their very beginning. Human embryos are human beings In his encyclical letter "Evangelium Vitae," our late and most beloved Pope John Paul II cautioned us "to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name (Pope John Paul II, encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae [On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life]," March 25, 1995, n. 58b).We are masters of euphemism and politically correct language. Such improper language can dull our consciousness regarding the reality about which we are speaking. The human embryo is a brother or sister at one of the very early stages of his or her development.All of us, in the history of our development, were once a human embryo.As a human embryo, we had already received from God our identity as a human being.Our identity has remained always the same through the various stages of our development.There was not something added to our being as a human embryo, at some later stage, which changed who we are.In his most helpful booklet on the subject of embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, an expert in both biotechnology and moral theology, tells us: "Embryos are no different in their essential humanity from a fetus in the womb, a 10-year old boy, or a 100-year old woman.At every stage of development, human beings (whether zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus, infant, adolescent or adult) retain their identity as an enduring being that grows toward its subsequent stage(s); embryos are integral beings structured for maturation along their proper time line" (Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Stem Cell Research, Cloning and Human Embryos, Washington, D.C.: Family Research Council, n.d.). With our penchant for euphemism, the human embryo because of its size and appearance can be described in various ways which ignore the most fundamental truth.As Father Pacholczyk comments: "Despite their unfamiliar appearance, embryos are what very young humans are supposed to look like" (ibid.). Scientific truth or religious faith The truth that the human embryo is a human being is not a matter of religious faith.It is a matter of biological science.Biology, and, more specifically, embryology, teaches us that once fertilization (or a procedure which replaces fertilization like human cloning) takes place, a new human being comes into existence.Here I note that we used to say that the stages of human development span from conception (fertilization) to natural death.Now, because of the technology of human cloning, we must refer to the beginning of human life by the word, "inception," since it is possible to generate a new human life outside of conception, that is outside the conjugal union of father and mother, even though it is gravely immoral to do so. The scientific truth about the human embryo has the most serious implications for our religious faith and practice.Once science teaches us that the human embryo is, in fact, a human being at an early stage of development, our religious faith, which teaches us love of neighbor without boundary or limitation, demands that we safeguard the human embryo and promote its growth and development. The safeguarding of human life is part of the natural moral law which our religious faith further illuminates.The grace of divine charity inspires and strengthens us to observe the law which God has written in our hearts. As citizens of Missouri, we know that the natural moral law is at the foundation of the justice of every law and that the common good which the natural moral law promotes demands the protection of innocent human life, the safeguarding of the right to life. It is our strictest obligation, therefore, to work for the protection of the life of the human embryo and to urge others to join us in upholding the natural law of safeguarding human life, not as a specifically Catholic belief but as part of the moral heritage which belongs to all. Inviolable dignity of the human embryo Once we know that the human embryo is a human being, a human life, we are bound in conscience to safeguard his or her life.In a particular way, we must be vigilant for the protection of the life of the human embryo, for it is innocent and totally defenseless. In our society’s confusion about the fundamental moral law, the inviolable dignity of the human embryo is said to be justified for the purpose of curing certain illnesses or repairing some physical damage caused, for instance, by an accident.Apart from the question of whether stem cells obtained through the destruction of human embryos is, in fact, an effective treatment for the illnesses or physical impairment, it is never morally justified to do something intrinsically evil to accomplish some good.Even if the stem cells obtained from the human embryos could be effective in treating the suffering of others, it would not justify our destruction of an innocent and defenseless human life. In his encyclical letter "Evangelium Vitae," Pope John Paul II reminded us that the destruction of the human embryo is a violation of the respect owed to every human life, just as is procured abortion.He wrote: "This evaluation of the morality of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos.This is the case with experimentation on embryos, which is becoming increasingly widespread in the field of biomedical research and is permitted in some countries. It must nonetheless be stated that the use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person" (n. 63a). He continued, applying the teaching also to the case of the generation of human embryos or fetuses for some medical purpose: This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes specifically "produced" for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as "biological material" or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases.The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act (n. 63b). As citizens bound by the moral obligation to promote the common good, we should not only oppose any legislation or amendment to the Constitution of the state of Missouri which would make legal intrinsically evil acts, but we must work for legislation and constitutional guarantees directed to the respect for the inviolable dignity of innocent human life. What about human cloning? Human cloning, a procedure for the generation of new human life "without any connection with sexuality," is a grave violation of the moral law, opposing "the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, instruction Donum Vitae [On Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day]," Feb. 22, 1987, I, n. 6).Father Pacholczyk provides us a concise and clear description of the procedure: "This kind of cloning involves taking the nucleus of a body (somatic) cell and introducing it into an egg cell (ovum) which has had its nucleus removed.The resultant cloned embryo is then implanted into a uterus to bring it to birth.The cloned embryo is an identical twin of the person who donated the starting somatic cell.Cloning is simply another approach to mimicking the biology that generates identical twins" (Stem Cell Research, Cloning and Human Embryos). Nature teaches us that human life is a gift from God through the cooperation of father and mother in the conjugal act.To presume to generate life artificially or mechanically is a violation of the natural moral law and an offense to God, who is the author of all life.It subjects human life to the manipulation of technicians and leads to a domination of individual human lives, which is contrary to the inherent freedom of the individual. Sometimes, cloning is called by another name, "somatic cell nuclear transfer."The same moral objections to human cloning, therefore, apply to somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).Here again, the practice of euphemism can enter into our discussions, confusing us about the reality in question. What about therapeutic cloning? Some who oppose reproductive cloning —that is, cloning for the purpose of generating a new human being identical to another human being — claim that therapeutic cloning, that is cloning for the purpose of obtaining stem cells, is morally acceptable.The truth is that both reproductive and therapeutic cloning generate artificially a new human life, which is immoral itself.Therapeutic cloning involves an additional grave moral evil, for the new human life is generated to destroy the life at the embryonic stage.In other words, instead of implanting the cloned embryo in the womb, technicians destroy the embryo to obtain its stem cells. Father Pacholczyk points out an effect of human cloning which may evade our notice.Through the practice of human cloning, we, in effect, create a class of human beings whose inherent dignity is not respected and who are, therefore, subject to our violation of their most basic rights.In the words of Father Pacholczyk, "[t]herapeutic cloning sanctions the direct and explicit exploitation of one human being by another, in this case, the exploitation of the weak by the powerful" (Stem Cell Research, Cloning and Human Embryos). Should not we leave it to the experts? Clearly, to understand embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning requires a certain knowledge of human biology and biotechnology. As a result, some have taken the position that the procedures involved are too technical for everyday understanding and any judgment about the morality of the procedures must be left to experts.We cannot excuse ourselves from the protection of a human life because the assault on the life involves a certain complicated technology.On the contrary, we are even more obliged to find out what is involved in the procedures of embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning to safeguard the dignity of all human life. We turn to experts to understand the nature of the procedures, but we pose to the experts the ultimate question about the rightness or wrongness of the procedures, according to the dictates of the natural moral law.Some experts believe that the mere fact that a procedure can be carried out successfully justifies it.For us, the fact that we can do something in no way justifies that we do it.Only the inherent goodness of the act can justify it.The inherent evil of the act makes its impossible for us to accept. There are a number of reliable resources prepared for those of us who are not experts in biology and biotechnology that help very much to understand the serious moral questions involved in embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning.I recommend Father Pacholczyk’s booklet from which I have quoted several times: "Stem Cell Research, Cloning and Human Embryos."It is available from the Family Research Council, 801 G Street NW, Washington, D.C. 2001.The Web site of the Family Research Council is www.frc.org. A thorough and excellent live presentation of Father Pacholczyk is also available on DVD.It is titled "Cutting through the Spin on Stem Cells and Cloning" and is available from the Donum Vitae Center for Bioethics.You can order the DVD either by visiting the Center’s Web site, www.donumvitaecenter.org, or by calling (877) 773-4481. Also, Our Sunday Visitor has produced two excellent pamphlets: "What the Church Teaches: Stem Cell Research" and "What the Church Teaches: Human Cloning." They can be obtained by visiting the Web site of Our Sunday Visitor publications, www.osv.com, or by calling (800) 348-2440, ext.3. Also, please feel free to contact the Respect Life Apostolate of the archdiocese, which has available a number of these resources.The telephone number of the Respect Life Apostolate is (314) 792-7555, and the fax number is (314) 792-7569. Is the Church against the use of stem cells? Because of the Church’s objection to embryonic stem-cell research, she is often accused of being against all stem-cell research that offers the promise of cure or help for those suffering from certain diseases or physical impairments.The impression is given that Catholics are heartless before the situation of persons suffering, for example, from Alzheimer’s disease or spinal injuries from an accident.Clearly, given the gravity of the suffering involved for the individuals and their families, the discussion can become very emotional.In discussing the issues, we must respect the desire to assist our suffering brothers and sisters, and to understand the feelings of those who are close to them and want to help them in any way possible.At the same time, we know that only the truth will lead us to do what is truly good and charitable.Speaking the truth with love, we will help those who suffer and those who seek to assist them. The accusation that the Catholic Church is opposed to all stem-cell research is false.The Church, in fact, favors research involving stem cells for the purpose of restoring health.The Church opposes embryonic stem-cell research because it involves an intrinsically immoral act, the destruction of a human life.Stem cells can be obtained, for instance, from umbilical cord blood or from adults.Such stem cells, in fact, have shown good result in the treatment of certain health conditions.In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, we should be particularly proud of the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and its support by St. Louis University. Here, it should be noted that, while there are many documented cases of cures through the use of adult stem cells, there is no documented case of a cure through the use of embryonic stem cells.On the contrary, the result has been negative, namely the formation of tumors and other difficulties in recipients of embryonic stem cells. Father Pacholczyk tells us: "Up to now, no human being has ever been cured of a disease using embryonic stem cells.Adult stem cells, on the other hand, have repaired scar tissue on the heart after heart attacks.Research using adult cells is 20-30 years ahead of embryonic stem cell research and holds greater promise.This is in part because stem cells are part of the natural repair mechanisms of an adult body, while embryonic stem cells do not belong in an adult body (where they are likely to form tumors, and to be rejected as foreign tissue by the recipient).Rather, embryonic stem cells really belong only within the specialized microenvironment of a rapidly growing embryo, which is a radically different setting than an adult body" (Stem Cell Research, Cloning and Human Embryos). The popular presentation of embryonic stem-cell research would have us believe that opposition to it is the denial of a cure to persons with grave physical suffering.There is no positive indication to that effect.And, if there were, it would still be wrong to destroy a human life to achieve the effect. What next? In order that we all take up our most serious responsibility for the protection of the life of the human embryo, the Bishops of the Province of St. Louis (Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Bishop John R. Gaydos of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Bishop John J. Leibrecht of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau and myself as archbishop of St. Louis) have asked that the homilies in all parishes on the First Sunday of Advent be devoted to teaching the inviolable dignity of the life of the human embryo, and the intrinsic evil of embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning. The First Sunday of Advent, with which we begin our preparation for the celebration of the birth of our Lord, is a most fitting time for us to reflect on the inviolable dignity of every human life.God the Son became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born into the family of Mary and Joseph on Christmas to give up His life to save every brother and sister without boundary or exception.God the Son Incarnate teaches us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan to love every brother and sister without boundary or exception.By His passion, death and resurrection, He has won for us the grace so to live and love one another. Following the First Sunday of Advent, we bishops also have asked each parish to sponsor an educational event, open to all parishioners, for the purpose of discussing the issues surrounding embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning in the state of Missouri.A number of excellent presenters are available through the Archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate.The educational event will be announced in your parish on the First Sunday of Advent.I urge you to take part in it. The Missouri Catholic Conference, the public-policy arm of the bishops of the Province of St. Louis, will be working together with the diocesan offices, which have responsibility for the respect life or pro-life apostolate.The Web site address of the Missouri Catholic Conference is www.mocatholic.org.The telephone number is (573) 635-7239. Conclusion As a more recent citizen of Missouri, I have been impressed by the strong commitment of my fellow citizens of the state to the respect for human life.As a newcomer, I hope that the citizens of Missouri are proud of all that has been accomplished in our state to safeguard the dignity of innocent human life. There are serious challenges to the respect for human life in our state like the "Missouri Stem-cell Research and Cures Initiative."As I wrote at the beginning, given the state of our culture, we should not be surprised at such initiatives and at the confusion from which they originate and which they generate.We must, however, be even more fervent in our prayer and in our work to promote the respect for every human life.Through prayer, study and witness, we will do what is right and good, giving glory to God and serving every brother and sister.Truly, it is a matter of life and death for our tiniest and most defenseless brothers and sisters.It depends upon us to safeguard them and to promote their growth and development. Through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of America and Star of the New Evangelization, may we safeguard and promote the dignity of all human life from inception to natural death.

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