Articles by Category

Embryos are human

The Washington Times

August 20, 2001

John Mallon

On the subject of embryonic stem cell research, a talk show host recently made the comment that "Catholics are all over the map on this." This is a common mistake made in the media and deliberately fueled by Catholic dissidents. In fact, Catholic belief is that Catholic doctrine is not derived from popular consensus but from revelation: sacred scripture and sacred tradition. 

Most Protestant groups do not accept the sacred tradition part, opting for "Sola Scriptura" (scripture alone). The Catholic argument is that the Canon of Scripture (which books were and were not included in the Bible) was the work of Catholic bishops in an ecumenical council in the early church.

This is not about comparative religion but simply to clarify that the Catholic Church has a central Magisterium (teaching office) charged with interpreting scripture and tradition, applying Christ's teachings to complex questions of the day, thus continuing sacred tradition and deepening understanding of Christ's teaching as it comes to us in unchanging and unchangeable doctrine. Catholic doctrine-that is, the essential teachings of Christ on faith and morals-do not and cannot be changed; rather, our understanding of them deepens with insight through time. Any Catholics who are "all over the map" either don't pay attention to the Church's clear teaching or reject that teaching. But the teaching remains.

Whether one accepts or rejects Catholic teaching, the significance of Catholicism's self-understanding is relevant to the national conversation because the Catholic Church is one of the few objective and unchanging moral yardsticks left in the world today, and therefore continues to be invoked in ethical debate. The Catholic Church is a player, like it or not. Naturally, there are those who invoke "separation of Church and state" to exclude the contribution of the authentic Catholic voice and that of other world religions in the public debate.

To exclude the voice of religion in crucial public discussion is to block out a great mass of accumulated wisdom on the human experience and the nature of reality, rendering the discussion incomplete. It then ignores an enormous and essential aspect of human experience – religion – and leaves a gaping hole in whatever conclusions might be reached. Those who seek to silence religion in public debate tend to have a preconceived agenda for the outcome which they see as threatened by religious thought. But the attack on religion is a red herring, a distraction from the real issue.

While individual Catholics may be "all over the map" on the question of embryonic stem cell research, Catholic teaching is not. U.S. Catholic bishops themselves lamented a widespread "spiritual illiteracy" among many Catholics, necessitating the release of the new catechism of the Catholic Church in 1994. But Church teaching couldn't be clearer: One may never commit an intrinsically evil act (in this case taking an innocent human life) that a perceived good may result (in this case potential medical breakthroughs). 

More likely what will result (and is resulting) is a further diminishment of respect for human life, and an increasingly utilitarian view of the human person. Another Catholic principle: A human being may never be used by another for his own ends. This is not only utilitarianism but slavery. Each human being is an end in himself or herself. If those embryos are not safe no one is. The mantra, "They are going to be discarded anyway" could have come from the mouth of Dr. Josef Mengele.

These embryos are human and alive, consisting of 46 chromosomes, and are therefore human life. As living beings, who are human, they are human beings. They are not potential life, any more than one is "potentially" or "sort of" pregnant. You is or you ain't. 

These embryonic human beings are alive, now, and involved in a terrible dilemma utterly beyond their control. They are human, innocent and helpless, and therefore deserving of love and the protection of the state. They are dependent on civilization but civilization is perhaps even more dependent on them, as we consider their fate. In considering their fate, we are determining our own.

Perhaps this is the real precipice on which we stand: the notion (again) that certain human beings can be considered so insignificant as to be unworthy of love and protection solely on the basis of their size and stage of development. In other words, the world needs to go back and reread "Horton Hears a Who" by Dr. Seuss: "A person's a person no matter how small."

That we are even considering this question of human medical experimentation is already the result of the disastrous turn we took with Roe vs. Wade, the ruling that a developing (but fully human) child's life was less important than a woman's convenience or difficult circumstances, circumstances that could be vastly improved with simple love and acceptance, offered and received with a good outcome for all, including the child. There are millions of women who regret having had an abortion, but I have yet to hear of a woman who regretted changing her mind and choosing life.

The questions at stake in the embryonic stem cell debate are not a mere matter of one's "personal religious belief," but strike at the very foundation of civilized society. The choice is between justice and truth, where love and civility are safe to flourish, or a descent into chaos, barbarism, anarchy, tyranny and death. Medical science and ethical research will not stop; it will continue, with the Catholic Church's blessing, diseases will continue to be cured. But a cure that debases human dignity and the sovereignty of individual lives is no cures. They are, in fact, disease. The original disease.

Our nation now stands where the fledgling nation of Israel stood in the Book of Deuteronomy when Moses addressed them saying, "I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live." (Deut. 30:19)

John Mallon is contributing editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, and writes a column in the Daily Oklahoman.