Mourning Timmy

by Cathleen Cleaver

August 17, 2001

I wasn't working for the bishops' Pro-Life Secretariat very long before I heard my colleagues mention "Timmy" in conversation. Timmy was a mystery to me. Who was this person? Did he used to work here? Where is he now?

Now, there were (and are still) many things for me to learn in this new job, not the least of which is the office "lexicon." All offices seem to have one. In Washington, D.C. that lexicon is usually riddled with acronyms so that, to the untrained ear, office talk might sound more like a foreign tongue or a phonetics class than the King's English.

So finally I asked, "Who is Timmy?" Timmy, they said, referred to the new little human embryo. They explained that about ten years ago a popular newspaper cartoon ran a series mocking former abortion practitioner Dr. Bernard Nathanson's harrowing pro-life film, "The Silent Scream." The cartoon portrayed the embryo as a little dot whose name was Timmy, and ridiculed the idea that any suffering or "screams" could issue from such an insignificant little speck.

The cartoonist was ridiculing all pro-lifers by ascribing what he saw as an absurd degree of humanity to the embryo – a name, a sex, a voice. But in our office, "Timmy" became a way of remembering the truth about human life. We took up the cartoonist's term of ridicule and used it as a sort of badge of honor to the embryo's humanity.

Recently the President approved limited government funding for embryonic stem cell research: federal funds will pay for research using the physical parts of embryos who have already been killed for this purpose, but not for future research for which the embryos have not yet been killed. What is to be our reaction? One reaction is to mourn the loss of life that has already occurred, defend the stance against future funding, and get on with the promising research. Yet we cannot help but feel something approaching dread when we contemplate that, with this decision, we will be paying for research that has been made possible only by the taking of human lives.

I say "approaching" dread because the whole concept can seem so abstract. We know that an early embryo is just as human as we are. We know this from science, not from faith. But it takes faith to love embryos in their humanity. Surely we understand that if a being is human and alive, then we ought not kill it for research or any other reason. Early embryos are human and alive, but their life – what kind of life is it? Can it have any meaning? Why is it difficult to see these embryos as tiny humans, early in development, made in the image of God?

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II explains that we are experiencing a culture of death because there has been an "eclipse of the sense of God." By living "as if God did not exist," man not only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of his own being. In our culture of death, we no longer see our lives as gifts, given at the pleasure of the divine gift-giver. Human life no longer seems sacred because we have forgotten its origin.

This forgetting of God, and consequent losing sight of man, leads to what the Holy Father calls a "systematic violation of the moral law." We experience this now. When one in four pregnancies ends in abortion, abortion is no longer an occasional evil but part of the very fabric of our society. What happens to a society which makes the violation of moral law systematic? The result, says John Paul II, is utter confusion between good and evil – a "darkening of the capacity to discern God's presence." When we by our own will forget God, we begin a journey to a place where it becomes difficult or impossible to see God. We live in a culture today which has so systematized moral violations that it no longer recognizes them as violations.

The President's decision to fund embryonic stem cell research goes to the heart of this tragedy. Before the decision, there were scientists who were killing human embryos for research. This was a grave evil, but it was an anomaly, an evil at the margins. The decision to publicly finance research on the remains of these destroyed embryos brings the research into the mainstream and makes it a public affair – it systematizes it and makes it part of the fabric of our society. And it will make it even more difficult for society to see in every human embryo the image of God.

Let's not forget about Timmy. In their quiet stillness, human embryos bear our image, and the image of God. They are a mystery to us, but not to God. What is the meaning of their lives? Perhaps it is nothing more, and nothing less, than obedience to the command to, "Be still and know that I am God."

Cathleen Cleaver is Director for Planning and Information at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.