The Bishops Get It Right

Last weekend, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a wonderfully concise and eloquent statement on embryonic stem cell research. When printed out, it comes to barely more than six double-spaced typewritten pages, but within that relatively small compass may be found all of the elements essential to a well-formed Catholic conscience on this important question. Even more remarkably, the statement marshals its argument in a manner that can be grasped by a person of ordinary intelligence.

Given the complexity of the subject and the continual stream of disinformation propagated by the mainstream media on the question, this is no small accomplishment. The bishops deserve a hearty round of applause for piercing to the heart of the matter in such a thoughtful and accessible fashion. The pity is that it hasn’t been done before, but now that the statement is out, every effort should be made to ensure wide dissemination throughout the nation’s parishes. A rough estimation suggests that its fifteen paragraphs would fit nicely onto a single two-sided page for insertion into weekly bulletins. But there’s no reason why the effort to educate the laity should end there. Homilists should be encouraged to expound upon its themes from the pulpit.

The statement opens with a pithy scientific description of the current controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells and their medical potential. It then turns immediately to the central moral questions: whether it is licit to treat innocent human beings as if they were mere objects of research, and whether one human being can be sacrificed for the benefit of another. The bishops develop their argument on these points by examining the faulty philosophic assumptions and baleful consequences of the major arguments advanced by those who favor embryonic stem cell research.

These are essentially three in number: first, that the harm to the human embryo is outweighed by the potential benefits; second, that the human embryo is not a human being possessing fundamental rights; and third, that using unwanted or “spare” embryos involves no great moral harm because they are destined for death in any event.

The statement responds to each of these claims in turn and exposes the crass utilitarianism that lies at the center of the proponents’ arguments. It reaffirms the sound scientific evidence that the human embryo is indisputably a member of the species Homo sapiens, and points out the practical dangers of assuming that our rights are inversely proportional to the state of our biological development or medical vulnerability. If an embryo can be injured and destroyed for purposes of medical research, then why not a child in the womb, or for that matter any other member of the species?

The bishops’ statement also demonstrates that the specious moral premises used to justify embryonic stem cell research lay the foundation for human cloning, organ harvesting from cloned humans, or even the nightmarish prospect of animal-human hybrids. These horrific, brave-new-world phenomena are not somewhere off in the distance; they are the subject of widespread experimentation in laboratories even now. No doubt for that reason, the statement calls our attention to the gravity of the present hour by breaking into boldface type for emphasis: “It now seems undeniable that once we cross the fundamental moral line that prevents us from treating any fellow human being as a mere object of research, there is no stopping point. The only moral stance that affirms the human dignity of all of us is to reject the first step down this path.”

Finally, the bishops point out the happy news that stem cells taken from adult tissues or umbilical cord blood, which do not entail injury to or destruction of other humans, have already produced numerous beneficial results in the treatment of disease.

The statement is far richer in its treatment of these questions than this necessarily abridged summary indicates, but you needn’t take my word for it. See for yourself by downloading the statement from the USCCB website. (Those whose desire a more thorough and scholarly treatment of these matters can do no better than to consult Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen. It is the most meticulous and compelling discussion of the subject, on both scientific and moral grounds, now in print.)

Taken all in all, the bishops’ statement is remarkably adroit in its treatment of what is to some a forbiddingly recondite subject. It compresses current scientific knowledge, compelling moral argument, and prudent judgment into a short and lucid discussion, one that can be read with profit and comprehended by a high school student without being in the least condescending and without sacrificing anything of importance.

The salient thing now is to ensure it reaches the people in the pews.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.