By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Doug Kmiec recently asked Robby George—and you, dear reader—to respond to his questions on the beginning of life in preparation for a possible public debate between the two Catholic conservatives on embryonic stem cell research. I just got answers from George.
Grab a beverage and get comfortable. George's answers are by no means brief. But they present the antiabortion case in eloquent, often philosophical terms that draw deeply on modern science:
Q. Assume we need a relatively clear answer to the question "When does life begin?" in order to avoid ethical arbitrariness and to show proper respect for the dignity of the human person. The Supreme Court, of course, has selected viability, but this is objectionable to many since it does not seem to be anything but an arbitrary point designed as a jurisprudential compromise. Since either fertilization or implantation is a bright line, is there a basis to decide between the two that is not dependent upon faith?
A: No informed person believes that the life of a human being begins at the point of "viability." That point shifts backward with developments in technology and is, as Professor Kmiec suggests, arbitrary. More to the point, plainly the developing human is alive before viability. A "non-viable" fetus is defined as a fetus that will die if removed from the womb. Any entity that is capable of dying is a living being. Its life has already begun.
Does the life of a human being begin at implantation? This would be true only if it were the case that implantation transforms the human embryo from a non-living or non-human entity into a human being. But it does not. The human embryo even prior to implantation is a living being, i.e., an organism. Indeed, he or she (sex is determined in humans from the beginning) is a specific type of organism, namely, an individual of the human species. Moreover, he or she, though in a dependent condition and developmentally immature, is a distinct, whole (i.e., complete) human organism, as opposed to being a mere part of another organism. This radically distinguishes the embryo from the gametes whose union brought the embryo into existence. Ova and sperm cells are functionally as well as genetically parts of larger organisms; unlike embryos, they are not themselves organisms. By contrast, the human embryo is from fertilization forward a living individual of the human species—a human being—who, unless denied or deprived of adequate nutrition and an environment conducive to its flourishing, will someday walk and talk and ask mom and dad for the car keys.
Between fertilization and implantation the life of the embryo is characterized by a regular, predictable, and complex sequence of internally coordinated acts or events constituting the initial stages of human development. (Someone who denied that the human embryo prior to implantation is a unified, distinct, living human organism would have no explanation for this complex ordered development.) The embryo actively prepares for implantation and, if all goes well, actively implants in the mother's receptive uterus. Nothing happens at implantation to change the developmental trajectory of the embryo. The life of the embryonic human will continue to unfold in the sequence, timing, and direction determined by the embryo's genetic constitution and epigenetic state. Implantation does not change the embryo from one kind of entity or being into another. Nor does it initiate the life of a human being. No modern work of human embryology proposes or contemplates such a thing. By contrast, all of the leading works in the field confirm that fertilization, when successful, produces a distinct, whole organism that is numerically identical with the adult he or she will, if all goes well, someday be. (I treat the question of what happens in monozygotic twinning in the attached article.) That is why it is true to say (and false to deny) that you the reader, for example, were once an embryo, just as you were once an adolescent, and before that a child, infant, and fetus. You developed by a gradual, gapless, and internally directed process from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages and ultimately into adulthood with your unity, distinctness, determinateness, and identity intact. To have destroyed the living human organism that is you in the embryonic stage, even before implantation, would have been to destroy you.
I mentioned that the developmental process is internally directed, that is, directed from within by the embryonic human, and not by an extrinsic agent acting on him or her. This is important. It seems that some people are under the mistaken impression that embryonic development is extrinsically directed. As a matter of established fact, however, the embryo uses the genetic information within himself or herself to direct his or her own integral organic functioning and thus to develop along the human species-specific trajectory towards maturity. Of course (absent an artificial womb) the developing human is dependent upon his or her mother for nourishment and an environment hospitable for survival; but this does not mean that the embryo is at any stage anything other than a distinct and complete human organism—a living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stages of his or her natural development. Another common error is to imagine that the embryo is somehow "made alive" or transformed from some sort of non-organismal status into an organism by maternal signaling. It is true that signaling between mother and embryo occurs in connection with implantation. As human anatomist and embryologist Maureen Condic has pointed out, however, the maternal signaling is signaling of receptivity to implantation; it is not signaling that directs the embryo's integral functioning and development. From fertilization forward, the newly conceived human's integral organic functioning and development are internally directed.
In the attached article entitled "Embryo Ethics," which appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I address a number of arguments that have been advanced by advocates of embryo-destructive research in an effort to show that early human embryos are not human beings or, if they are, are not "persons."
Q. As Professor George apparently conceded in our recent E-mail exchange concerning the President's stem cell directive, different faith traditions answer the question of when life begins differently. Should respect for these religious differences and the human right of freedom of conscience affect how public laws treat abortion or embryonic stem cell research? If so, how should different religious perspectives is accommodated?
We should resolve our national debate about the moral status of the human embryo and the ethical legitimacy of embryo-destructive biomedical research and its public funding on the basis of the best available scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins, and our national commitment to the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family. The question of when the life of a human individual begins is a scientific one, and the science is clear enough. A decisive moment in the development of our knowledge came in 1827 when Karl Ernst van Baer discovered the mammalian ovum. Prior to that point, scientific, philosophical, and religious writers worked in deep ignorance of the facts. Their speculations about prenatal human life were just that—speculations. Now the facts are known. As pro-abortion and pro-embryo research philosopher Peter Singer once pointed out in a letter to the editor of the New York Times rebuking Mario Cuomo, the real question is not when the life of a human being begins; it is what value attaches to the lives of human beings at various developmental stages and in various conditions. On one side are people (such as Professor Singer) who deny that all human beings are equal in worth and dignity. On their view, some human beings, such as those in the embryonic, fetal, and early infant stages, and those in severely mentally debilitated conditions, such as the profoundly retarded, are not "persons," and do not possess the same worth as those who are. On the other side, are people (such as Professor Kmiec and myself) who believe that all human beings are persons possessing inherent and equal dignity and a right to life. The Catholic Church, among other faiths, comes down on the equal dignity side. It is true that there are some religious groups who deny the equal dignity and right to life of children prior to birth. There is nothing new about religious communities coming down differently on the question of human equality. In our own national experience, we've seen these differences on the issues of slavery and racial segregation. Indeed, on those issues, some religious denominations split into opposing factions. Those of us who today defend the principle of equal human dignity should treat those who have not yet found their way to its full affirmation with respect and engage them in civil discourse and argument—just as Martin Luther King famously did in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. But like Dr. King, we should work tirelessly in the political sphere to secure justice for all.
Q. To what degree does the Church teach that human dignity is traceable to man's "soul" or spiritual destination and does the Church have a view on when the soul enters the body? Is the Church's present view spiritual or scientific?
The Church teaches that every living human being, irrespective not only of race, sex, and ethnicity, but also irrespective of age, size, location, stage of development or condition of dependency, possesses inherent and equal dignity and a right to life. This truth is accessible to natural reason and, in the view of the Church, can be rationally affirmed by persons of every faith and even by those who are not religious believers. So the Church is happy to have public policy on questions involving the status of human embryos determined on the basis of the scientific evidence as to when the life of a human being begins and a basic philosophical commitment to the equal dignity and right to life of all human beings. The Church does not demand that public policy be based on theological affirmations of the immortality of the soul or the spiritual destination of man. The magisterium of the Church has not issued a formal declaration that the early embryo is ensouled. The magisterium has itself noted that fact, precisely in the context of teaching that such a declaration is not necessary in order to hold, as the Church does formally hold, that the life of the human being from the earliest embryonic stage forward must be respected by all and protected by law. As to the substance of the question whether the early embryo is ensouled (assuming there is such a thing as an immaterial soul), the mainstream of the Church's tradition holds that the soul is the substantial form of the body. So we should conclude that a human soul exists whenever a human body exists—in other words, the human being is ensouled from the point at which he or she begins to exist. Is the human embryo ensouled? It depends on the answer to this question: Is the human embryo a living member of the species Homo sapiens? Since the answer to the former question is, as a matter of scientific fact, "yes," so must be the answer to the latter.
Q. Is it correct to posit that since the very existence of an immortal soul is not a subject for scientific inquiry, the question is a philosophical one?
As I just noted, resolving questions regarding the soul is not necessary to determining when the life of a human being begins (a scientific question) of whether human lives deserve respect (an ethical question). That said, souls are immaterial forms, though they are forms of material substances, i.e., bodies. So scientific methods of investigation are, in themselves, not suitable (at least in any direct sense) for determining whether there are souls. By its nature, science is incapable of inventing a soul detector. The question is, rather, philosophical. Yet, as I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, assuming that there is such a thing as a human soul, a human being is ensouled from the point at which he or she comes into existence (since human beings, whatever else we are, are material beings and come into existence as such). Again, however, the question of "ensoulment" need not be engaged in considering the question of when the life of a new human being begins, or deliberating about what our public policy should be on the taking human in any condition or at any stage of development. The late Dr. Hymie Gordon was a very distinguished medical geneticist at the Mayo Clinic and co-founder of the Program in Human Rights and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Although he was a religious man (an observant Jew), he pointed out that the question of when the life of a human being begins "is no longer a question for theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life or purpose of life, but it is an established fact that all life, including human life, begins at conception."
Q. If you believe that the Church has consistently taught that human dignity attaches without reference to the soul or spiritual nature of the human person (i.e., ensoulment or its proof), but instead on the basis of objective scientific fact, where has the Church presented its scientific argument in detail in writing accessible to the lay body of the Church? [N.B., the recent admonishment of now Vice-President Biden during the 2008 campaign and the Catechism, I assume you would agree, do not present scientific argument, even as both announce scientific claim].
The magisterium of the Church has made reference to the facts of human embryology in various documents touching on our moral obligations to our brothers and sisters at the dawn of life. (It has done so most recently in the Vatican Instruction Dignitas Personae. See especially sections 4-6.) The authors of these documents have rightly assumed that these facts are not obscure and are easily accessible to anyone who cares to know them. Joseph Biden can read. If he took the teaching of his Church seriously—indeed, if he took seriously the question of the moral status of those beings whose lives are deliberately taken in abortion and embryo-destructive research—he would spend the small amount of time required for him to familiarize himself with the facts.
Q. If the question of when life begins depends on objective science, where has the scientific community confirmed that it overwhelmingly and definitively favors fertilization over implantation [or nidation]?
The real debate is not about the scientific facts. It is about the value of human life at different stages and in various conditions. As to the science, here is the account given by the human embryology text most widely used in contemporary anatomy and medicine: "Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell—a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual." (From Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, in The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, p.16, emphasis supplied.) This account is fully in line with the accounts provided in all other leading texts in the field. I know of no human embryology text that contradicts it.
Q. If the scientific view in favor of fertilization is not unanimous or nearly so, why not?
Please see the previous answer.
Q. Do you believe the president's stem cell directive to have any justifiable biomedical research goals? If so, what are they, and how have you distinguished these goals from other goals that are without justification?
Unethical science is never acceptable, even when its goals are laudable. The Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African-American men, for example, were utterly unjustifiable, despite the fact that their goal was to enhance understanding of the disease with a view to improving treatment of those afflicted. Science that relegates living human beings at any stage of development or in any condition to the status of disposable research material is inherently unethical. It cannot be justified by the goodness of its goals. We all want stem-cell science to move forward. We applaud the stem-cell therapies that have already been developed (all using ethically unproblematic adult stem cells, by the way), and we look forward to many exciting new developments just over the horizon. Our objection is only to human embryo-destructive stem-cell research. We enthusiastically support research using adult and other types of stem cells that can be obtained and used without harming human embryos.
Q. As a matter of objective scientific fact, is there unanimous or near unanimous agreement that there is no difference between the destruction of a human embryo for the purpose of seeking a medical breakthrough o n behalf of patients suffering from potentially curable, but presently fatal, illness and the taking of an adult life for the same purpose?
Unless I am misunderstanding the question, it rests on a false assumption. Science has important things to contribute to ethical reflection, but by itself it cannot resolve ethical questions. Science cannot tell us whether there are such things as dignity and rights, or whether all human beings or, for that matter, any human beings have them. Science cannot tell us whether slavery or segregation or rape or torture is right or wrong. It cannot tell us whether mentally retarded individuals or victims of senile dementia have the same fundamental dignity and right to life as the rest of us possess. It cannot tell us whether it is unjust to kill infants or mentally disabled people to harvest their vital organs to use in transplantation surgery. It cannot tell us whether it is wrong to kill blacks to save whites, or Jews to save gentiles, or human beings in early developmental stages to save those at later stages. Science can confirm that blacks, no less than whites, Jews, no less than gentiles, and embryos, fetuses, and infants, no less than adolescents and adults, are living individuals of the human species—human beings. The questions that then must be faced are ethical, not scientific: Do all human beings, or only some, possess inherent dignity? Do we truly hold that all human beings are "created equal"? Or do we deny the principle of human equality and hold that some human beings may be regarded and treated as superior and others inferior based on factors such as race, ethnicity, sex, religion, age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency? As a nation, we are formally committed to the principle of human equality in fundamental rights—above all, the right to life. The history of our nation is, to a considerable extent, a history of our struggle to live up to what this principle demands. We have made great progress. Let us not turn our backs on it now.
Q. If the President implements his announced prohibition against human cloning for the purpose of human reproduction by punishing those who purposively create human embryos by means of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer with the objective of human reproducti on, would that not amount to a prohibition on cloning for the purpose of human reproduction?
As I explained in my E-mail exchange with Professor Kmiec, such an approach would not be in line with the putative "reproductive cloning" prohibitions that Barack Obama supported when he was a member of the United States Senate. Under these prohibitions the unlawful act would be that of permitting the cloned embryo to survive and develop towards infancy. Moreover, it would create practical problems of various sorts, including the problem of what to do about someone who creates a human clone for research purposes (i.e., creates the clone with the intention of killing it or not permitting it to survive), and later decides to implant the cloned human embryo in the uterus of a woman volunteer (or in an artificial womb). That person would not have violated the law. There is also a problem at the theoretical level. Once an embryo has been created, reproduction has happened—a new living member of the species exists; so all human cloning is reproductive. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as non-reproductive cloning, nor is there any valid distinction between "cloning for reproductive purposes" and "cloning for research." "Cloning for research" is simply short hand for "producing a new human individual by somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning) for experimentation in which he or she is killed in the embryonic or fetal stage of development."
Q. Would you also think there would be a need — borne out of the desire not to directly or indirectly cooperate with evil — for the Catholic Church to advise the faithful against utilizing any pharmaceutical product or medical treatment regimen that has been advanced by SCNT involving a human embryo? If so, is there a need now for Church leaders to advocate strict disclosure requirements that will permit faithful Catholics to discern which aspects of medicine or medical treatment may or may not be pursued? Is such a limitation workable? To avoid material cooperation, would it be enough for a faithful Catholic suffering fro m cancer or Parkinson's disease to attempt to identify the pharmaceutical firms or research universities that the faithful should avoid patronizing or supporting?
Please see the postscript to my final contribution to the E-mail exchange with Professor Kmiec. I would note, in addition, that there is a treatment of questions such as these in Dignitas Personae, sections 33-35. In essence, the Church teaches that there are differing degrees of responsibility, with those who deliberately destroy human life committing a far more grievous wrong than those who use products developed from the wrongful taking of life. So, for example, the Instruction makes the following comment on vaccines produced using cell lines from aborted children: "Of course, within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such 'biological material.' Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision."
Q. Does the difficulty of any of the above, or the lack of agreement in the scientific community on any of the above, or the general unavailability of the Church ' s scientific exposition on any of the above commend a disposition of discussion and inquiry among Catholics that is ill-served by the use of ethical condemnations premised upon propositions like " material cooperation " ? If so, should greater latitude of debate and discussion be extended toward non-Catholic citizens?
Again, the scientific evidence is easily accessible. The primary obligation of the Church is to teach sound moral principles and to show, where necessary, how these principles should be applied, especially in difficult cases. This the Church has manifestly and consistently done on the question of the status of nascent human life. The magisterium of the Church has been assisted in this by theologians, philosophers, and other intellectuals, including many who are not themselves Catholics, who have provided information and detailed argumentation in support of positions taught by the Church as principles and norms of justice and human rights. The magisterium has encouraged these contributions and warmly welcomed them. Nevertheless, there are politicians and advocates of abortion and embryo destructive research—some of whom very publicly identify themselves as Catholic—who have apparently not investigated the matter thoroughly and have relied on inaccurate or politically biased descriptions of the embryo, on inaccurate or politically biased accounts of the Church's teaching, or on inaccurate or politically biased accounts of the arguments opposing the taking of pre-natal human life. Rather than "greater latitude" or immunity from criticism or rebuke, Catholics and non-Catholics alike would be best served by more careful attention to the facts of human embryogenesis and early development, and to the principles of justice that ought to be applied in light of these facts, by all parties to the dispute.
When people in a democracy disagree about a matter of public policy, especially when the matter is one of grave moral significance, they should engage in civil but vigorous debate, laying before the public the reasons for their views and answering the arguments advanced by those on the other side. Where fundamental principles of justice and human rights are at stake, as they were in the struggle to end slavery and racial discrimination, it is important for people to argue and act with resolution and determination to prevail. They must staunchly oppose those who would protect and extend policies and practices that are gravely unjust, and they must call injustice by its name. At the same time, they ordinarily need not, and should not, regard their opponents as irrational or evil, or lacking in honesty or goodwill. While history includes examples of true moral monsters, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, it also includes many examples of reasonable people of goodwill who somehow ended up supporting and even advocating policies and practices that are objectively deeply unjust.
In thinking about what attitude one ought to adopt towards fellow citizens with whom one disagrees about profound issues of right and wrong, all of us would do well to consider the example set by Ulysses S. Grant. Although Grant waged relentless war against Robert E. Lee and his army, the Union general regarded his great adversary as a man of integrity and honor. Indeed, he admired Lee for fighting so selflessly for a cause he believed in, though it was, Grant bluntly said, "the worst cause for which anyone ever fought." After Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Grant refused to exult, or permit his men to exult, over his vanquished foe, and (to Lee's astonishment) expressly declined to subject Lee to the humiliation of demanding his sword. Going still further in magnanimity, Grant provided 25,000 rations to Lee's starving army. If after four years of bitter and bloody warfare, General Grant could treat General Lee with such respect, we should be able to treat those with whom we disagree with no less respect, even as we struggle, as we are bound in conscience to do, to defeat them in the arenas of democratic deliberation and decision.