Why the Embryo Matters

by Richard M. Doerflinger

June 27, 2008

At their Spring 2008 general meeting, the Catholic bishops of the United States overwhelmingly approved a new statement on embryonic stem cell research.  This is their first formal statement as a body specifically on this issue, though the bishops' conference and many individual bishops have certainly spoken out over the years (for national examples and the new statement see www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/bioethic).

A fair question would be: Why now?  What is new to warrant a more formal statement on the principled case against killing human embryos for their stem cells?

Two things are new.  First, the national policy debate is about to be renewed in a more intense way.  Next year a new Congress and President will face this issue, and currently no presidential nominee supports President Bush's position against funding stem cell research that requires destroying human embryos.  This is a good time to remind Catholics and others what is at stake.

Second, this debate has reached a turning point in the scientific and medical community, though many politicians are slow to notice this.  For years, the pro-life movement has said there are other and better ways to pursue the medical promise of stem cell research.  It has become increasingly obvious that this is exactly right.  Stem cells from adult tissues and umbilical cord blood have been used in clinical trials to repair heart damage, restore sight, and treat conditions like multiple sclerosis and juvenile diabetes.  A new technique for "reprogramming" adult cells has produced cells with the properties of embryonic stem cells, without creating or destroying embryos – and prominent experts are abandoning embryo research in favor of this approach.

This is not to say that promising alternatives will simply make this issue go away.  But the noise about the "unique promise" of embryo research may die down enough to allow the moral argument to be heard.  If we have two promising ways to advance medicine, and one of them is free of moral problems, wouldn't everyone prefer that route?

A deeper question is: Why the embryo?  Is this little "ball of cells" worth all the fuss?

The bishops' statement has compelling answers to that question.  But in brief, this is where the battle on human life is joined, because it is here that Americans are being told to subsidize deliberate destruction of innocent human lives for a supposed "greater good."  Experts defending this research know that the embryo is a living member of the human species – but they deny that he or she has fundamental rights, because the qualities that they think make up "personhood" are lacking.  The fact is, those qualities may be lacking in some very young, very old and very disabled people after birth as well, and some ethicists are openly considering how useful it would be for medical progress, or even for cost control, to expand the category of humans with no rights.

The human embryo, like the unborn child generally, has become our society's "canary in the mine" – the helpless creature whose life or death will tell us whether we still hold to the inherent and equal value of each human life, or have allowed a deadly toxin into our culture allowing the strong to oppress the weak in the name of "progress."  That's a question we have to get right.

Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  Go to www.usccb.org/prolife to learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities.