The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health & Ethics



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by Daniel C. Maguire

The most important thing about the stem cell debate is the further glaring proof it provides that the United States is a functioning theocracy. The debate, and now government policy, is dominated not by science or by reasonable ethics but by mythology.

The framers of the First Amendment were not trying to banish religion from life. Many of them were pious believers. Their goal was to make sure that claims of divine inspiration did not supplant reasoned discourse in the making of public policy. The ruling dogma of Bush's stem cell policy, which happens to run counter to the mainstream wisdom of the world's major religions, is based on a religious mythological belief that small clusters of embryonic cells, small enough to fit on the point of the needle where angels dance, are "people," "unborn children," "human beings" "eligible for adoption", endowed with human rights such as you and I enjoy. A cluster of embryonic stem cells with huge therapeutic promise has been granted the status of an untouchable citizen of the United States with all the rights there unto appertaining.

This is the stuff of fanciful faith, not of science or of reason. It sides with one narrow religiously inspired viewpoint espoused by authorities such as Pope John Paul II but it effectively excommunicates all other religious and scientific views and makes this peculiar conservative view the one and only American orthodoxy. President Bush threatens to veto any legislative effort to honor other religious and scientific views. This is theocracy at work, not democracy. Also, forty years ago a Catholic senator and presidential candidate had to go to Houston to assure Protestant Americans that he would not allow the pope to set public policy. Now a President from Texas has followed papal teaching in his stem cell ruling.

The embryonic cell cluster in question here is so biologically primitive that it could in the first 14 days split into two, producing twins...or recombine into a single embryo. Persons cannot do that. In Christian tradition, only after three or four months could a fetus be considered a person or be eligible for baptism, or, if miscarried, for Christian burial. St. Augustine actually compared early embryonic tissue to vegetation, saying it had the moral status of a plant. St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying life in the womb started out at a vegetative level of reality. As it became more complex, it acquired an "animal soul" but only after some three months was it developed enough to receive a "spiritual soul." Only then could it be called a child. Most Jewish theologians put the moment of personhood much later in the pregnancy and do not give personal status to the early embryo or fetus.

Much of Buddhism allows a comparable gradual approach to the conferring of full personal status. All of these and other mainstream religious views would permit the use of the 100,000 stem cells available in fertility clinics and could support "therapeutic cloning," inserting the nucleus from a patient's cell to replace the nucleus of a fertilized egg to provide tissue that would be a perfect genetic match for the patient. This could prevent rejection.

On the fateful day of September 11, 2001, THE NEW YORK TIMES reported that the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's most eminent organization of scientists, issued a 59 page report calling for embryonic stem cell research beyond what the president would allow, saying that as many as 100 million Americans could benefit from its possible results. This report embodies the reasoned discourse that the framers of the Constitution said should be the foundation of public policy in this nation. So far, the creedal dogma of stem cell personhood trumps this sane report.

The ironies in all of this abound. Our foreparents left England in search of religious freedom. Now we must return there to find that freedom, since England has done a better job separating church and state. Scientists must now go to England to pursue their research on embryonic stem cells, free of U.S. theocratic controls. When you leave reason for alleged divine inspiration anomalies abound. In our theocracy, persons may donate a kidney for medical advancement but may not now donate the unused cell-clusters from their fertility treatments. How strange too, and even macabre, that there is more concern about the life of these microscopic cell clusters than the life of Afghan citizens killed by our bombs, dismissed with unemotional "regret" expressed at Pentagon briefings. These deaths are sanitized as "collateral damage"while the use of embryonic clusters to produce cures is called "destruction of life." Actually the extraction of stem cells is the transformation of these primitive but talented tissues into new life forms rich in therapeutic promise. There is more of resurrection here than of death. But to say that is heresy in this theocratic nation.

Daniel C. Maguire


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