A sense of tragedy helps to keep a culture moral. Tragedy reminds us of the suffering we cannot alleviate, the finite boundaries we must not cross, no matter how tempting the horizon. In the ancient world, tragic boundaries were policed by the gods so that the men who acted as gods soon learned, painfully, otherwise. If there is any tragic sense alive and well in the country, I can’t find it—perhaps the Nasdaq will once again make Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles popular.
Take the case of embryonic stem cells. Taken from the innermost cell mass of a human embryo, these cells possess a God-given power called “pluripotency.” Stem cells, in short, can grow into and become any of the tissues in the body. Once these cells are isolated, by removing them from the human embryo, they can be used to treat diseased cells anywhere in the body. The medical possibilities are revolutionary, the ethical possibilities devolutionary, one more step backward toward a complete culture of death. (For a comprehensive view, see the excellent articles on the Web site of the National Catholic Bioethics Center at www.ncbcenter.org.)
Crisis, like many other religious magazines, has warned against the growth of stem cell research (April 1999), yet acceptance of this medical treatment is becoming mainstream. The major traffic and news station (WTOP) of Washington, D.C., has reported the progress of stem cell research in the most glowing terms, without even a hint of an ethical complication.
The federally funded National Institutes of Health, working with the President’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission, has set guidelines allowing stem cell research as long as none of the Department of Health and Human Services funds are used for the derivation of stem cells from human embryos.
It will take moral leadership in high places to slow down, shut off, or redirect this research. The president of the United States has the power, through the appointments to his administration, to stop all research using the body parts of human embryos. The president could make it his administration’s policy to direct federal funds for the ethically acceptable use of adult stem cells, a practice that is now being explored. In fact, adult stem cells which can be legitimately obtained have the same healing effect of those taken from embryos. Can you imagine a National Bioethics Advisory Committee with people like John Haas, Robert George, Leon Kass, James Q. Wilson, and Stanley Hauerwas. Men and women of faith should clamor for it.
Some argue that there are thousands of “spare” human embryos that are going to “waste” as a result of in vitro fertilization. These embryos are literally held in cold storage and will never be used because in vitro clients create more embryos than they will actually use. So why not use them? Does this strike anyone else as a peculiarly American attitude? We can’t let those embryos just lie around and go to waste! Just at the point where the tragic sense should kick in, the American disposition is to start extracting the resources from these embryos so we can do some good, that is, make a healthier, happier America.
Nothing illustrates better the way one ethical breakdown leads to another. There shouldn’t be thousands of frozen embryos in the first place, so there would be no temptation to harvest them for our “good” purposes. The owners of in vitro clinics probably see this as a way both to profit from their embryo banks while avoiding the dilemma of what to do with the embryos down the road.
The National Institutes of Health lists Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, burns, and spinal cord injuries among the maladies that can be treated with stem cells. Even Jerry Lewis, a man whose charitable work I greatly admire, was touting the benefits of stem cell treatment for muscular dystrophy on his last Labor Day telethon. Who doesn’t feel tempted when faced with such a list, such a catalog of human suffering and death?
The essential principle of a culture of life is the protection of those most vulnerable among us. To protect them, we must resist the urge to profit from their vulnerability, whether to make our lives more comfortable or to heal the diseases that ravage us. Yes, that means making the tragic decision of not healing disease and not relieving suffering using stem cell treatment. The wisdom of that decision will become apparent once this generation begins to realize that stem cells are nothing less than baby parts.