Two weeks ago, the governor announced he would seek $10 million in state funding to help the UNM Medical School pursue research into the possible beneficial uses of fetal stem cells.
The next day, the Archbishop announced the Catholic Church would seek to oppose the fetal stem cell research project “because of our reverence for and commitment to all human life.”
Just like that, we were brought into the middle of the ongoing national battle over stem cell research. Now might be a good time to explore some of the background to the debate before the temperature level reaches irrational levels and passion supplants reason.
When does human life begin—or, for that matter, end? That’s the heart of the issue and, unfortunately, it’s a question science cannot definitively answer. The answer depends on how we choose to define life; not on scientific evidence.
Over the centuries, different milestones have been used to mark the start (or stop) of human life. For the first millennium of the Christian era, the start of life was defined as the point when an infant first “quickened,” or moved, in the mother’s womb.
Other cultures have used the moment of birth (emergence from the womb) or the point at which the fetus is “viable,” (i.e. can exist outside the mother) as the time when “human” life starts. At the other end of the life journey, cessation of brain waves, loss of pulse and the inability to breathe independently have all been proffered as endpoints for life: death definitions.
But if science continues to search for the definition of life with the same gradual but steady progress of stalagmites forming in a cave, the Catholic Church holds firmly to its position: Since we don’t know when life begins, we must prudently err on the side of caution and use the broadest possible definition.
The Church’s view is philosophical, not moral or religious, since there’s nothing inherently more moral in one definition for the commencement of life than in another. Additionally, biblical revelation is silent on the subject.
In the 12th century, St. Thomas Aquinas formulated the principles upon which the Church’s definition for when human life begins is based. These principles were rooted in the science of the Middle Ages, which (pre-invention of the microscope) held that the male sperm was actually a tiny but fully formed man who only began growing when brought into contact with the female ovum, the environment necessary for the tiny man to mature.
Science has since moved away from that poetically attractive but evidence-free explanation for the miracle of human life. But the Church hasn’t changed its “err on the side of caution” position which grew from it. Hence its insistence that human life begins at the “moment of conception.” That’s a religious belief. It is not a scientific fact.
Yet even the Church’s position, rooted as it is in a poetic vision of human life taken from a Medieval knowledge of biology, isn’t completely consistent today, at least as it’s implemented on the frontlines of pastoral counseling. Moral theology textbooks might be granite monoliths of “truth” untempered by compassion or common sense, but the living, breathing pastors charged with ministering to their flocks have learned to soften the implications of the Church’s teaching.
Taken to logical conclusion, the official Catholic understanding should require funerals for miscarriages—even those a day or two after conception, when up to 25 percent of all conceptions fail to successfully attach to the womb and are lost.
The official Church view leads to its opposition to the morning-after or second-chance medicines that are so widely employed.
The official Church view is that in vitro fertilization procedures are forbidden … regardless of how many families, unable to conceive otherwise, are joyously able to have children through that method.
And when, in spite of the Church’s stricture against in vitro fertilization, desperate infertile couples pursue the method and wind up with extra zygotes, freeze-stored in liquid nitrogen cells as backups, the official ecclesiastical view, if it is consistent, must be to preserve all the zygotes in perpetuity, neither allowed to develop further nor permitted to be discarded.
This is the point at which embryonic stem cell research clashes head-on with the Church’s philosophical or poetic definition for the start of human life. And in the 21st century, it’s a clash in which most educated people understand and agree with science, not poetry or philosophy.
The Church, of course, won’t change its position; it hasn’t stopped forbidding contraception, either, no matter how widely that ban is ignored.
But in a society in which multiple philosophies, cultures and religions have to live in accommodation with one another, public policy can’t be based on just one group’s perspective. And calling other viewpoints “immoral” doesn’t make them so.