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For the sake of our children.

Over the last half century, we have witnessed an astounding coarsening of conscience with respect to procreation and unborn human life. The use of embryonic stem cells to cure disease, repair injury, or prolong life illustrates this only too clearly. Many of us may have thought that legal abortion was as bad as it could get. What, after all, could be worse than routinely killing our young? Routinely consuming them, that's what. The debate over embryonic stem cells is about consuming our young. It is impossible to justify such atrocities without doing violence to reason.

Maureen McTeer

Attempts to respect and protect some human lives while degrading and exploiting others are contradictory and absurd. This was illustrated last March in a column by Andrew Coyne of the National Post. He noted that Maureen McTeer, a well-known feminist lawyer and political spouse, is opposed to harvesting stem cells from human embryos for medical research. Why? Because, Ms McTeer said, it is an affront to human dignity. From the moment of conception, she indicated, the fertilized egg is part of "the human continuum." Nazi scientists, Ms. McTeer was quoted as saying, shrugged that the victims of their experiments were "only Jews." Now we are saying, "It's only a fetus."

And yet Ms. McTeer calls herself pro-choice. How can she agree with killing the unborn by abortion but disagree with killing them for their stem cells? Her answer is that the rights of mothers trump those of the unborn, but the rights of scientists do not. This is as absurd as saying that a child can be legally killed in the birth canal but not when it has emerged moments later.

Preston Manning

Unlike Ms. McTeer, Preston Manning, founder and former leader of the Reform Party, has claimed to be pro-life. But while opposing abortion, he favours destroying human embryos to obtain their stem cells for research. Harvesting embryonic stem cells, he has been quoted as saying, is the lesser of two evils. What he means is that although it is evil to harvest these cells, it is a greater evil not to harvest them to help other people. Consequently, we should choose the lesser evil and harvest them. I wonder what yardstick Mr. Manning uses to measure the relative value of different lives.

Anyhow, I never imagined that I would see the day when a proponent of abortion would take a pro-life stand, as Ms. McTeer has done with respect to embryonic stem cells, and an opponent of abortion would take an antilife stand, as Mr. Manning has done with respect to the same thing. But such is the depth of intellectual confusion to which moral relativism has brought us.

"Left-over" embryos

Guidelines developed by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, a major federal funding agency, allow scientists to obtain stem cells from what are commonly called leftover embryos and from aborted fetal tissue. The so-called leftover embryos come from in vitro fertilization clinics. In vitro fertilization is a high-tech procedure that allows infertile couples to have children. With in vitro fertilization, a couple's sperm and eggs are united in a petri dish. Several embryos are produced to increase the chances of pregnancy when one or more of them are implanted, and any that are not needed are frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen.

The use of the term "leftover" is, of course, an out-rage. These microscopically small beings are members of the human family and should be respected as such. To refer to them as leftovers is demeaning. It is a cynical put-down.

Research into embryonic stem cells is physically and morally evil, because it entails the deliberate destruction of embryonic life, a fundamental human good. Unless impeded, humans develop in stages from conception to adulthood. At all stages, the duty to live and the right to life are present, at least implicitly. We have no objective means of measuring and grading human life such that we could say that it is more valuable at one stage than at another, or in one individual than in another. Life is a qualitative, not a quantitative, good. We know that it is valuable, but its value is literally incalculable; we cannot measure it. Since we have no basis for grading different lives, we cannot rank them and we are not justified in sacrificing one for the sake of another.

Embryonic stem-cell research, of course, is precisely about sacrificing some lives for the sake of others. It is a classic case of the end, the preservation of health or life in some, justifying the means, the destruction of life in others.

The deliberate destruction of one life for the sake of another is morally wrong without qualification. Our inability to measure and rank life renders invalid Preston Manning's argument that the use of embryonic stem cells is the lesser of two evils, or the greater of two goods. Were these cells the only hope for curing certain diseases or saving particular lives, we could not morally harvest them.

We don't, of course, have to choose between the life of embryos and the life or health of other people. Reality rarely presents us with such a stark choice. Adult stem cells provide a moral alternative to embryonic stem cells. Without causing death or impairing health, adult stem cells have been harvested from a variety of tissues and are already being effectively used to help people. In the interests of both morality and health, society should opt for non-embryonic stem-cell research and fund it generously. Research into embryonic stem cells should be prohibited.

Scientists and their technology

Why, then, is there so much enthusiasm among scientists and other elites for embryonic stem-cell research? The answer is that over much of the last century, our civilization has lost its moral bearings with respect to the life issues. A disastrous milestone on the road to this moral ruin was our willingness to divorce the relational meaning of sexual union from the procreative meaning.

The so-called leftover embryos that scientists see as ready made for stem-cell research were not conceived through acts of spousal love. As I noted, they were created in a petri dish by technicians. in vitro fertilization excludes the relational meaning of sexual union. When we resort to it, we isolate the creation of life from a context that is uniquely conducive to love. By excluding love from life at its inception, we discredit the relational meaning of human sexuality. But we also detract from the procreative meaning, for children ought to be conceived in love.

I do not mean to disparage technology, only its inadmissible use. What is technically feasible is not, for that reason, morally permissible. Technology cannot distinguish between good and evil; only we can in the light of principles that safeguard fundamental human goods. Where appropriate, we may use technology to assist the conjugal act in achieving its procreative purpose; we ought not to use it to replace the conjugal act. Persons ought to originate as expressions of spousal love, not products of technical ingenuity.

Products are subordinate to the technology that produces them. When technology usurps the conjugal embrace, it establishes dominion over the lives it produces, a dominion that clinicians assert when they cultivate more embryos than they need and discard those that fail to meet arbitrary standards of quality, while storing indefinitely others deemed acceptable but surplus. Persons, however, transcend all technologies. Children are not commodities to be used but gifts to be loved. As gifts, they incarnate the total mutual self-giving of their parents. We cannot properly demand a gift or specify its attributes. We receive a gift with gratitude and we accept children unconditionally; we accept them as they are, not as we might want them to be. If we insist on the right to order them up, it is a small step to insisting that they be made to order. It is a small step, that is, to the evil of eugenics.

We do not own people

Children, as I said, are gifts. We don't own them. We own property, we do not own people. Slavery is about owning people. Through marriage, we have the right to engage in the life-affirming acts that are apt to produce children; we have no right to a child anymore than we have a right to an adult. Children are not subordinates whom we dominate for our benefit; they are equals whom we nurture and discipline for their benefit. Their state is subordinate, because they lack maturity, but their humanity and personhood are on the same level as ours. It is repugnant to human dignity that one person should hold dominion over another, especially over the very life of another, either in its origin or in its demise. It is not within our authority to give and take life. It is only within our authority to accept it.

Love and life are what sex is essentially about. To separate them, to exclude one or the other, is to strike at its very essence, to corrupt its essential meaning. If everyone believed in the integrity of the relational and procreational meanings of sexual union, there would be no in vitro fertilization clinics, and there would be no leftover embryos to tempt scientists. How is it that we, as a society, have so easily accepted the technological isolation of procreation from conjugal love, an isolation that clears the way for embryonic stem-cell research?

We found it easy, almost natural, to accept the separation of procreation from sex, because earlier we accepted the separation of sex from procreation. The reproductive technologies proceed logically from the contraceptive technologies. By separating the relational and procreative aspects of conjugal intercourse, contraception enables fertile couples to have sex without babies. Once this became common, it was relatively easy to accept in vitro fertilization, which enables infertile couples to have babies without sex.

Many, of course, regard contraception as an unqualified good. It is not. It is an unqualified evil. When we make love while contraceptively rejecting the possibility of new life, we act against life. But to act against life is to attack a fundamental human good, an integral aspect of personhood. When we contracept, whether mechanically, chemically, or surgically, we sacrifice one fundamental human good in favour of another. For the sake of community, mutual love, fulfillment, pleasure, or whatever, we violate life. In the very act through which we are poised to co-operate in the transmission of life, we say no to life. By denying the procreative meaning of the sex act, even though we affirm its relational meaning, we compromise its integrity. By rejecting one of the fundamental goods it uniquely and essentially entails, we render it incomplete.

Of course, just as adult stem cells provide an ethical and effective alternative to embryonic stem cells, natural family planning provides an ethical and effective alternative to contraception.

I said at the outset that, over the last half-century, we have witnessed an astounding coarsening of conscience with respect to procreation and unborn human life. The tragic events of September 11,2001, have prompted many thinkers to do some deep soul-searching about good and evil. The advent of stem cell research should prompt all of us to do the same. If we are ever going to stop the mounting disrespect for human life, not to mention human reason, we will have to recover a commitment to universal moral principles and apply them in our own lives and in society. Moral relativism will not do. Fortunately, we don't have to discover a new morality. We just have to recover our Western traditions.

Joe Campbell writes from Saskatchewan and contributes frequently to Catholic Insight on a wide range of issues, but especially on Catholic social teaching.
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Author:Campbell, Joe
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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