The Evil of Embryo Destruction

Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Denver Archbishop
Reproduced with Permission

In the debate over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, some of the massive media coverage has been fair, accurate and thorough, but much of it — too much of it — has fallen short of reasonable journalistic standards.

By far the most troubling piece I've seen was the editorial, “Zealotry vs. science,” published by the Denver Post on July 14. I respect the Post and the force for good it often represents in our community. But in this case, the Post used bombast and misleading information to argue its support for federally funded embryonic stem cell research in a way reminiscent of a not–very–bright bully.

Dismissing those who respect the dignity of human embryos as “zealots,” the Post then accused them of desiring for sick and suffering Americans the same fate as victims of the Spanish Inquisition.

In effect, the Post argued that people of faith and moral conviction have no place in the public square — at least not on this issue. And the editorial's allusions to the tortures of the Inquisition recall the kind of Know Nothing bigotry perfected by the Ku Klux Klan. It's bad journalism. It's unworthy of the Post's normally decent standards. The people of Colorado deserve better from a major daily newspaper.

Let's be clear on this: Catholics do indeed oppose medical research that requires the destruction of human embryos. Millions of other Americans, religious and otherwise, share this moral conviction. We emphatically support science and medical advances — but we oppose the use of immoral means to achieve seemingly good goals, even when they include possible medical cures.

Why? Because if the bloody legacy of the last century has taught us anything, it's that the end never justifies the means.

The immorality of destroying human embryos does not rest on what the Post termed a “rigid postulate.” Rather, the sacredness of human life is the constant teaching of the Christian faith from the Didache of the first century through Vatican II. Two statements from the Catechism of the Catholic Church make this teaching clear.

“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. ... Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being's right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death” (2273).

“Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being” (2274).

In the face of this teaching, the Post and others attempt to dehumanize embryos by calling them “microscopic clumps of cells” or by insisting that they are “unneeded.” But these microscopic clumps of cells are genetically complete and unique human individuals. Their tiny size does not diminish their humanity — by exactly that same bad logic, an infant would be less human than an adult. In fact, all of us were once the same size on our journey through the continuum of human life.

The term “unneeded” is also quite curious. It reveals a utilitarian ethic that denies human dignity and treats people as objects to be manipulated. Practitioners of this ethic were tried as war criminals less than 60 years ago. Today, they promise miracle cures while ignoring a constant principle of morality — we may never do evil so that good may result from it. The cures promised are hypothetical, but even if real, they can never justify the evil of embryo destruction.

Does fidelity to sound moral principles leave us without hope of medical advances? Not at all. Stem cells derived from adult tissue and from the placenta after childbirth have produced promising results, even while the use of embryonic cells to treat Parkinson's Disease patients has proved disappointing. And non–embryonic stem cells can be acquired through entirely moral means.

This is a matter of enormous importance. Let the President and your congressional representatives know your convictions — and equally important, let's pray for them daily, that the Lord will lead them to see and do what is right.

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