Should the Government Force You to Help Kill Human Embryos?

In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II points to several aspects of the contemporary threats to human life which he finds "gravely disturbing," and even "sinister": 1) the State, ignoring its duty to defend innocent lives, "legally" authorizes their destruction; 2) the attacks are broadly socially accepted and are defended in the name of individual freedom; 3) professionals in medicine and science are recruited to do the killing; 4) the attacks are carried out most often against vulnerable humans at the beginning and end of life's journey; and 5) often at the request of the victim's own family.

Although innocent people are killed daily through gang violence and other criminal activity, such crimes are not socially accepted and do not enjoy the protection of law. There is no grassroots mobilization, no orchestrated lobbying clamoring for increased criminal and gang activity.

In recent years the silent destruction of human embryos has been going on in a growing number of privately-funded biotechnology laboratories and in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. It has been estimated that nine out of ten embryos created in the IVF process die before birth, and countless "excess" embryos are frozen, suspended in time and development. But now, rather than proposing legislation to curb this wanton abuse of developing humans, the Clinton Administration sees the stockpile of frozen humanity as an opportunity to expand research in which these human beings will be intentionally killed.

One big obstacle has been blocking this development. Since 1996 Congress has banned the use of federal funds for research "in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death. ..." The ban has been renewed annually since then. In pending legislation for Fiscal Year 2001, the ban is contained in Labor/HHS Appropriations Bills (S.2553 and H.R. 4577). But in January 1999, a memorandum from the General Counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled a quirky new interpretation of the ban on destructive human embryo research. Research could move forward with federal funds, it was claimed, provided that funds other than taxpayer-funds are used to wield the lethal weapon. A rather nice distinction which, however, does not withstand legal, moral or logical scrutiny.

The National Institutes of Health ("NIH") published draft guidelines, taking advantage of this interpretation, on December 2, 1999. The draft elicited over 50,000 comments (of which the great majority opposed funding such research). Final guidelines, released August 23, 2000, show no appreciation of the moral minefield NIH is about to traverse.

Oddly, in an attempt to show a keen ethical sense, NIH seizes upon other "distinctions" just as meaningless as the issue of who funds the act of killing as part of the federally-funded research. For example, funding will be available for research only if the stem cells were taken from embryos created for "reproductive"–but not research–purposes. Does the value of a human life depend on the circumstances surrounding the child's creation? The distinction seems more like a ploy to gain public acceptance for this killing, on the ground that the excess embryos "are going to die anyway." But, again, the logic is flawed. This nation has never before approved killing human beings who "were going to die anyway" in order to obtain their organs for research or transplantation–not the dying, nor prisoners on death row, nor children born with impairments so severe that their expected life span is hours or days.

A second false distinction arises in the area of informed consent. No excess embryos can be killed to obtain their human pluripotent stem cells unless "informed consent" is obtained from the "individuals who have sought fertility treatment." [Note, "parents" would be hopelessly old-fashioned and confusing here, given the growing use of "surrogate" wombs, donor eggs and donor sperm. Courts are grappling with how to determine parenthood in these cases.] Does the insistence that clients give informed consent really sanitize this whole process? Executive Director of the American Infertility Association, Pamela Madsen, praised the guidelines, gushing: "This wonderful decision by the NIH gives many couples an important new option for [their] embryos" (AIA release quoted in The Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, Aug. 28, 2000). The important new option—the thing "individuals who have sought fertility treatment" are consenting to—is the deliberate destruction of living innocent human beings for medical experimentation! When has one individual ever had the right to consent to such an appalling act being done to another?

What are we to make of informed consent guideline II.A.2.e.(vii): donors are to be told that "embryos donated will not be transferred to a woman's uterus and will not survive the human pluripotent stem cell derivation process"? Are "individuals who have sought fertility treatment" supposed to be relieved or forewarned by this reminder that they have chosen death—not life with them or even with an adoptive couple—for their offspring?

The HHS General Counsel's memorandum and the NIH guidelines were all the encouragement Senator Arlen Specter needed to introduce S.2015, the "Stem Cell Research Act." Brushing aside the promising discoveries and developments—announced almost weekly—in research using adult stem cells (obtained easily without taking an innocent life), Senator Specter's Appropriations subcommittee has sponsored a series of hearings on the subject to raise awareness of, and support for, research using stem cells obtained by killing human embryos. Winsome celebrities—like Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox and Mary Tyler Moore—are paraded before the Senate panel and media to explain the promised benefits of this research. How could any feeling person deny them the cure they so clearly deserve, even if it means killing other humans to find it?

It depends, of course, on what your definition of "human being" is. Ms. Moore does not see a one-week-old human embryo as human: "The embryos that are being discussed, according to science, bear as much resemblance to a human being as a goldfish." Except, of course, that a goldfish will always inevitably remain a goldfish and the human embryo–if not wantonly killed—will become a fetus, newborn, toddler, teenager and adult, just like her.

The source for this silly goldfish remark is not "science," but columnist Michael Kinsley. Writing in The Washington Post two weeks before, Kinsley claimed that "a goldfish resembles a human being more than an embryo does. An embryo feels nothing, thinks nothing, cannot suffer, is not aware of its own existence" (Aug. 29, A17). [Memo to self: Avoid deep sleep, general anesthesia and accidents that could result in unconsciousness when near Mr. Kinsley!] "'Human life' is a label we confer," he says. The wonder, to his thinking, is why it's "so hard" for pro-lifers to accept that "we each start out as something less than human [What—caviar? chopped liver?], that the transformation takes place gradually, but that it's morally acceptable to draw a line somewhere other than at the very beginning. Not just acceptable, but necessary." Why then is it called human embryo research? If not a human, what are the "individuals who have sought fertility treatment" spending their money for? Goldfish are a whole lot cheaper.

Senator Sam Brownback, who leads the opposition to S.2015, states the case succinctly: Killing human embryos for federally-funded stem cell research is "illegal, immoral and unnecessary." Contact your Senators today and urge them to oppose funding research using stem cells from human embryos.