After several years of pitched battles over the experimentation on embryonic stem cells -- cells obtained through the destruction of human embryos -- a most extraordinary confession was recently made by the scientist who pioneered the process.
Dr. James A. Thomson told The New York Times that he had been deeply concerned about the ethical implications of his discovery.
"If human embryonic stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough," he said.
With everyone from state legislatures to a host of presidential candidates endorsing embryonic stem-cell research and seeking the biotech dollars that come with such research, his confession comes a bit late in the game.
Yet we welcome, however belatedly, his acknowledgement that the destruction of human beings for the sake of scientific research or medical technology is worthy of intense moral debate. We only wish that the Times had followed up by asking him why it had concerned him, and how he was able to justify the destruction of nascent human life for the sake of his research.
While Thomson's most recent discovery -- deriving stem cells from human skin -- may make the destruction of human embryos for the harvesting of stem cells unnecessary, the fact that the medical-technological complex, the media and politicians around the world eagerly jumped on the bandwagon of embryonic destruction with virtually no thought for the ethical consequences remains of deep concern.
We are standing on the precipice of a host of new bioethical issues, and our track record suggests that we are poorly prepared to weigh their consequences, much less say no to the wishes of those who will profit from such discoveries.
As Dr. John Haas, one of the leading Catholic ethicists in the bioethical field, told OSV this week (see Page 3): In contemporary America there's been a broad shift to where the human person is no longer looked upon as being inviolable, sacred, engendering awe and respect. Instead, a person's become just something that can be used for our benefit like we use everything else."
This utilitarian outlook combined with the ability of powerful corporate and government interests to manipulate public opinion suggests that Catholic ethicists like Haas will continue to struggle to be heard.
New bioethical issues include the willingness to create new life forms using human and animal genetic material, the use of genetic testing to identify -- perhaps for the purpose of destruction -- medical conditions and tendencies at the embryonic stage, and the creation of human life for the purpose of harvesting specific organs or genetic material to treat other human beings.
Everyone from nervous parents to insurance companies to government control experts will be tempted to exploit new genetic breakthroughs without considering the moral implications.
Having witnessed the totalitarian nightmares of the 20th century, the Church is keenly aware of what is at stake in this new world of genetic consumerism, and it remains the single most eloquent voice calling us back from the precipice.
The Church must make bioethical education for ordinary Catholics a priority. It has lost the battles regarding birth control and in-vitro fertilization, and it risks losing many more bioethical battles as well if it does not move quickly to help form Catholic consciences to engage in the broader social debate that needs to take place.
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