The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics



Daniel C. Maguire


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The debate on stem cell research on embryonic tissue is flummoxed by a misunderstanding that can be corrected by common sense and just a little of the wisdom from major world religions. The objections voiced by the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference and by other conservative religionists are rooted in the idea that embryonic tissue has the moral status of a child. As William Safire writes in The New York Times (July 16, A 19): "The cells being used" are "from embryos no bigger than the period that ends this sentence..." Whatever that tissue is, it is not a citizen of the United States. It is not folks like you and me. It is not part of an on-going pregnancy. It is in a frozen state in a laboratory. The most "pro-life" use of it would be to use it to seek cures before it is routinely destroyed

The shadow of the abortion debate darkens this discussion, especially in the halls of government. Enter a little wisdom from some of the main religions in our culture. St. Thomas Aquinas, the premier teacher in the Roman Catholic tradition, did not think that the early fetus was a person, "ensouled" in his view. Thus, embryonic tissue was certainly not endowed with a human soul. St. Thomas adopted the view that the early life in the womb was life but ensouled by a vegetative soul, to be succeeded by an animal soul and then, after three months by a spiritual soul. At that point it achieves the status of a baby and a person.

As Catholic theologian Christine Gudorf writes: the traditional Catholic pastoral view was "that ensoulment occurred at quickening, when the fetus could first be felt moving in the mother's womb, usually early in the fifth month. Before ensoulment, the fetus was not understood as a human person. This was the reason the Catholic Church did not baptize miscarriages."

Similarly, orthodox Jewish theologian Laurie Zoloth writes of Judaism that "abortion is permitted as a health procedure since a fetus is not seen as being an ensouled person. Not only are the first forty days of conception considered 'like water' but also even in the last trimester, the fetus has a lesser moral status."

These and other religious traditions recognize that embryonic tissue is human tissue but they do not demean the rest of us by assigning it the dignity of personhood. Therein lies the cure for the embryo fetishism that is hobbling the current stem cell debate.

Daniel C. Maguire
2823 N. Summit Avenue
Milwaukee WI 53211
tel. 414 961 0139
fax 414 961 2150


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