What was once seen as an act of desperation-the killing of one's own child-is now fiercely defended as a good decision, and promoted as a right. Even worse, a deadly blindness has come over our land, preventing many people of good will from recognizing the rights of innocent human lives to respect, acceptance and help. Claims of privacy and an ethic of unlimited individualism have been used to undermine the Church and government's responsibility to protect life. Legalized violence has spread through our society like a cancer. The powerless of all ages are threatened.
In our culture, we see an ongoing conflict between good and evil, a conflict between life and death. As we strive to assure peace and justice, too often it is forgotten that the common good can only be served when the right to life-the right on which all other inalienable rights of the individual rest and from which they develop-is acknowledged and defended.
I look upon this panorama with shame, with immense sympathy for all its victims, and a desire to make the service of charity consistent and more abundant.
The question-"Where does one begin?"-is easy to answer: "We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem." [Living the Gospel of Life, no. 21]
Some behaviours are always wrong, always incompatible with our love of God and the dignity of the human person. Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Abortion willed either as an end or a means is gravely contrary to the moral law.
Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offence. The Catholic Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. A person who procures an abortion incurs excommunication by the commission of the offence. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent child who is put to death, as well as to the parents, and the whole of society. Confessors have the faculties to lift such an excommunication and the bottom line is always - "Go away, and from this moment sin no more." [Jn. 8:11]
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. This means that a human embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for and healed like any other human being.
Prenatal diagnosis is morally licit if it respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus, and is directed toward its safeguarding or healing as an individual. It is gravely opposed to the moral law when done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion. Depending upon the results, a medical diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence.
It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.
Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic, but are aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities. Such manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity and the unique and unrepeatable identity of human beings.
To focus on the evil of deliberate killing in abortion is not to ignore the many other urgent conditions that demean human dignity and threaten human rights. Opposing abortion does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life and dignity must seriously address the issues of violence in racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care.
Catholic teaching is clear and consistent. The following story suggests another step once we have committed never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life.
A contractor dies in a car accident on his 40th birthday and finds himself at the Pearly Gates. A brass band is playing, the Angels are singing a beautiful hymn, there is a huge crowd cheering and shouting his name and absolutely everyone wants to shake his hand. Just when he thinks things can't possibly get any better, Saint Peter himself runs over, apologizes for not greeting him personally at the Pearly Gates, shakes his hand and says "Congratulations son, we've been waiting a long time for you!"
Totally confused and a little embarrassed, the contractor sheepishly looks at Saint Peter and says, "Saint Peter, I tried to lead a God fearing life, I loved my family, I tried to obey the 10 Commandments, but congratulations for what? I honestly don't remember doing anything really special when I was alive." "Congratulations for what?" says Saint Peter, totally amazed at the man's modesty. "We're celebrating the fact that you lived to be 160 years old! God himself wants to see you!"
The contractor is awestruck and can only look at Saint Peter with his mouth agape. When he regains his power of speech, he looks up at Saint Peter and says "Saint Peter, I lived my life in the eternal hope that when I died I would be judged by God and be found to be worthy, but I only lived to be forty." "That's simply impossible son," says Saint Peter. "We've added up your time sheets."
I think we all have to work on our time sheets and do more for life. Reach out to women who are pregnant and in need of help and to families struggling with financial or emotional difficulties. Stand by those who wish to choose life with the witness of solidarity, hope, and service. Catholic families should be living symbols of our conviction that life is always a gift from God. Teach your children to respect human life from conception to natural death. Pray as a family for an end to this evil that destroys the weakest of the weak, the poorest of the poor.
☩ Frederick Henry
“At its core, the issue of embryonic stem-cell research forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science,” President George W. Bush said in a recent address.
The President announced in his speech that he had concluded that federal funds could be used for research on more than 60 genetically diverse stem-cell lines that already exist, where the life-death decision has already been made. These cell lines were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and the have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely.
He went on to add that this allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem-cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have “at least the potential for human life.”
The President also opposed human cloning, and he supported aggressive federal funding of research on umbilical cord, placenta, adult and animal stem cells which do not involve the same moral dilemma as embryonic human stem cells.
“As the discoveries of modern science create tremendous hope, they also lay vast ethical minefields.” What are some of those minefields?
The moral problem is framed in large measure by in vitro fertilization. The typical in vitro fertilization procedure involves the production of more embryos than will be implanted in the mother. Those that are not immediately placed within the womb are placed in frozen storage. Once the fertility program has been completed, the clinic will ask parents what they want to do with their “left-over” embryos. Do they want to continue to pay to have them kept in storage, or would they prefer to have them thrown away, or given to science to for research?
In discussing these questions there are a number of facts that we have to keep in mind:
First of all, the materials kept in frozen storage are human beings. They are not just fertilized eggs or random collection of cells. They are whole human organisms that have resulted from the union of the husbands’ sperm and the wife’s ovum (normal and best case scenario). These frozen human embryos contain a full set of human chromosomes. They are human beings at a very early stage of embryological development. Whether or not one is a human being does not depend upon size or one’s location in the physical world.
Secondly, these human embryos are alive. They are not “potential” human life. They are precisely what human beings look like at that point of their lives. Freezing an embryo does not kill it, but merely arrests its development.
(As an aside, for those who accept in vitro fertilization, would not the better solution be to research method of freezing ova? This would eliminate the creation of additional embryos and their subsequent freezing, which is contrary to their human dignity and puts them at risk for subsequent research. In this way there would be an end to the corrosive link between in vitro fertilization and the destruction of human life.)
Thirdly, this form of research would allow the embryos to be stripped of their cells and their integrity, reducing them from a subject to an object, from a human being with dignity to a source of organic material.
Fourthly, the difficulties are compounded when human embryos are created solely for the purposes of research. Therapeutic cloning is an additional affront to human dignity. Scientists have long recognized that the principle that no experimental or research procedure should be conducted on human subjects if it provides no direct benefit or if the risks to the subject are inordinately great. In the case of human embryo experimentation, not only is there no direct benefit to the subject, but the embryos is directly killed. This cannot be done for whatever reason, even in view of the possibility that it might provide advances in science and medicine that would benefit others.
No amount of public benefit can ever justify the deliberate killing of a human being. The argument is particularly hollow when the same results could be achieved by alternate means such as the use of adult stem cells or the stem cells derived from umbilical cords or placentas. Such research would have no ethical complications and has already shown highly promising results.
No human being, including the embryo, should ever be used as a means to an end; no human being should be considered as “surplus” or “spare.” It is always wrong to destroy another human being even to help another. Both the means and the objective must be good; there is no middle ground. We cannot kill in the name of science.
President Bush has elevated the public ethical debate on the issue of stem cell research and attempted to find the middle of the road by setting some limits, i.e. by only granting funding for research on existing stem cell lines, “here the life and death decision has already been made.”
Nevertheless, his position is not without moral difficulties. We must remember that the existing stem cell lines have been obtained by the deliberate destruction of human embryos for the sake of research. Such funding has already been declared “insufficient” by some, that there are relatively few existing lines and they eventually degrade, and that the existing guidelines must be broadened and expanded. It short, the door has been opened for further legitimation of the destruction of now-living embryos.
We would do well to keep in mind the words of the Psalmist: “You created my inmost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb. For so many marvels I thank you; a won-der am I, and all your works are wonders.” [Ps.139:13-14]
☩ Frederick Henry