Page 10, 19th November 2004

19th November 2004
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Page 10, 19th November 2004 — Stem cells, politics and the triumph of ignorance
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Stem cells, politics and the triumph of ignorance

John Keown &David Jones

We have just witnessed two struggles for the soul of America. At the forefront of each were some of America’s most prominent Catholics, albeit on opposite sides. In each struggle the value of unborn life was key.

In the first, Mel Gibson made a brave stand against the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, also Catholic) and Superman (the late Christopher Reeve). This battle was fought in California over whether billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money should be poured into scientific research using “stem cells” taken from early human embryos.

Scientists are excited by embryonic stem cells because of their ability to turn into a range of different cells. They predict that, if produced by cloning, stem cells could provide “tailor-made” treatments. If you suffered from a serious illness a cell could be taken from your body and placed in a woman’s egg from which the nucleus had been removed. The resulting cloned embryo might then produce healthy cells that could be transplanted back into you without being rejected. Those in favour of embryonic stem cell research argue it promises cures for those with conditions, such as Christopher Reeve’s tragic paralysis.

Opponents of embryo research, such as Mel Gibson and the Catholic Church, argue that the research is wrong because getting the embryo’s stem cells involves killing the embryo, and also that the procedure is unnecessary because stem cells can also be taken from adults. Indeed, adult stem cells have already, unlike the embryonic variety, produced a range of successful treatments. Feminist opponents have stressed the abuse of women that would likely be involved in obtaining the supply of eggs necessary to produce cloned embryos: poor women would be exploited by egg harvesters.

Gibson tellingly asked: “Why do I, as a taxpayer, have to fund something I believe is unethical?” He also pointed out that the billions would be better spent on saving threatened Californian health facilities from closure, instead of being squandered on unethical experimentation. He also wondered why, if cloning embryos for destruction was so promising, private companies weren’t stumping up the cash.

Mel and the other opponents lost. But then advocates of embryo research, not least the biotech industry, had amassed more than 20 million dollars to advertise their cause. Opponents had a war chest of less than half a million. Californians who voted in favour may, living in a state which is no stranger to bankruptcy, live to rue their largesse.

The stem cell issue also played out in the second struggle: the presidential election. George W Bush, a courageously pro-life President, made clear his continued opposition to the killing of human embryos. By contrast, John Kerry, despite his Catholicism, made support for embryo research a plank in his platform. The senator has long been a leading supporter of “abortion rights”. He has voted even for “partial birth” abortion, where the unborn child is delivered except for its head, which is then punctured with scissors and its brain sucked out. Some bishops have, not surprisingly, said they would refuse him Communion.

The debate resulted in a fog of confusion which was thickened, rather than cleared, by the mass media. From the misleading media coverage many Americans, including Christians, could easily have been forgiven for not knowing that the research being advocated involved the killing of embryos (Mel Gibson changed his mind on the issue when he realised this). Nor would they have been aware of the alternative of adult stem cells, or for swallowing some of the wildly exaggerated claims about likely cures, or for thinking that the President had banned research using embryos (when he had in fact financed research on stem cell lines from embryos which had already been destroyed and had merely refused to fund research on lines derived from any further destruction).

Despite the smoke made by the Kerry campaign and blown by the media, Bush won. And the President’s pro-life supporters hope that his victory will not only prevent any federal funding of new cell lines but will translate into restrictions on, and perhaps even the reversal of, the sweeping constitutional right to abortion which was invented by the Supreme Court in the 1973 case of Roe v Wade.

Confusion is not confined to America. In Britain too voters are surely misled by the “liberal” bias in media coverage of issues affecting unborn life. Surely one can rely on Catholic publications for accurate reporting and analysis of these important issues? Sadly not. Even prominent Catholic journalists can get their basic facts wrong.

A recent example is an article by Clifford Longley in The Tablet. In an article on the status of the unborn child, Mr Longley made three mistaken claims.

Firstly: “In the Anglo-Saxon legal system as far back as anyone can see (and in any other legal system I am aware of, including canon law), foetuses have never been given any recognition whatever as human persons.” On the contrary, canon law, which has always regarded intentional abortion at any stage of development as gravely wrong, has always recognised the personhood of the unborn child by classifying its intentional destruction (at least after ensoulment) as homicide.

Secondly: “A foetus cannot be a victim of a crime ...” In fact the criminal law has for centuries regarded the unborn child as the victim of the crime of abortion (at least after quickening, when the mother first feels the baby move). Centuries ago, it was homicide and later a lesser, but still serious offence. In the 19th century, statutes were passed, both in the United States and England, to tighten the common law and protect the unborn from the point of fertilisation. This ratcheting of the law reflected fierce criticism in both countries by the then pro-life medical profession that life began not at quickening but at fertilisation and that abortion from that point was, morally, “murder”. (The Roe court’s misreading of this legal history was a major reason for its flawed finding of a constitutional right to abortion.) Thirdly: “The murder of a pregnant woman is the same in law as the murder of an unpregnant one.” This is certainly not true of American law. A number of states treat the killing of an unborn child as a separate offence from the killing of the mother and Congress and President agree with that position: it is a federal crime to kill an unborn child during the commission of a federal offence.

While English law does not regard the unborn child as a legal person, this is largely due to historical ignorance about life’s origin at conception. Granting the unborn child legal personality (at least the right not to be intentionally killed) would be a logical development of the principle of the sanctity of life (both born and unborn) which has historically informed both Church law and criminal law. This laudable future is, however, unlikely to materialise if we misunderstand the past.

The vote in California, and the re-election of President Bush, have reignited debate on the moral status of the unborn child. In Britain too, the debate has been reawakened, not least by the latest technology showing babies “dancing” in the womb. Given the media bias on this issue, Catholic newspapers have an important opportunity to counter obfuscation and to promote a more informed and balanced debate than we have yet witnessed on either side of the Atlantic.

John Keown is Rose F Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington DC.

David Jones is Senior Lecturer in Bioethics at St Mary’s College, Twickenham, and author of the forthcoming book The Soul of the Embryo




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