Bishop Vasa on Human Experimentation

Human embryonic stem cell (gold) growing on a layer of supporting cells (fibroblasts). Stem cells are derived from very early embryos and can be either grown to stay in their original state or triggered to form almost any type of human cell.
     Human embryonic stem cell (gold) growing on a layer of supporting cells (fibroblasts). Stem cells are derived from very early embryos and can be either grown to stay in their original state or triggered to form almost any type of human cell. Photo Credit: micrograph by Annie Cavanagh and Dave McCarthy

Experimentation, if it leads to death, cannot be justified

By Bishop Robert Vasa

Catholic Sentinel– I have written before of Catholic hospitals and Catholic healthcare and my most recent trip to Hood River for the blessing of an expansion of Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital affords an opportunity to reflect once more upon the topic.

     There has been much in the news about healthcare and health insurance and medical research and this is necessary, for the topic is a very important one. It is a very important one for Catholics. It is very important because it has very serious moral and ethical ramifications.

     The president’s recent expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is one example of how important it is to operate from sound moral principles. President Obama seems to recognize that human embryos are human beings. I draw this conclusion from his own remarks. In the speech he gave at the signing of the executive order he said: “I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly.” This is interesting. If it is not at all immoral and if it does not involve a human being’s life then why this caveat? He continues: “We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.” Certainly there is good reason not to tolerate misuse or abuse in any scientific research but why make special “strict guidelines” for embryonic stem cell research? Because he knows, and science verifies, that this is deadly human experimentation.

     To further add to the dishonoring of life, while ostensibly showing a hint of respect, the president notes: “And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.” Lest we be deceived, we need to look carefully at exactly what he said and more importantly what he did not say. He will never allow “cloning for human reproduction.” If you recall some years ago there were “cloning” discussions and a lot of wordsmithing took place. Cloning, in one argument, was defined as the creation of a genetically identical human being with the intention of bringing that individual to birth. Thus, a lot of what would be understood as cloning would not be considered cloning at all and thus not prohibited. Rather than simply stating an unvarnished truth that human “cloning” is dangerous and profoundly wrong, the president qualifies his opinion. Thus cloning for human research is not perceived as wrong, only cloning for “human reproduction.” Based on his reasons for supporting human embryonic stem cell research, which justifies the killing of an innocent human being for the sake of some vague and undefined future scientific good, we would have to conclude that cloning would be permitted for those same reasons. Provided, of course, that we did not mean to bring a cloned child to full term birth.

     Included in my comments at Hood River were the following sentences: “What does it mean to say that a particular style of medicine is ‘Catholic’?” Most obviously we note that Catholic medicine is not a different brand of medicine with its own unique prescriptions and surgical procedures. It is not a medical system set aside solely for Catholics. It is not an excessive reliance on miracles and supernatural interventions. It is not a semi-superstitious reliance on chants and incantations. Then again Catholic medicine is a different brand of medicine with its own unique prescriptions which call for a deeper reliance on God. It has some unique surgical procedures that try to excise sin and evil while not failing to treat a cancer or an infection. It is a medical system not solely for Catholics but for the treatment of the entire human person as understood by Catholics. It does not rely excessively on miracles or supernatural interventions but it does rely on these things. Central to a Catholic health system is a profound appreciation for the dignity of every human person, no matter how small. As I noted: “When the concept of a person’s worth or dignity is based on some external factor, however noble that external factor may be, there will come a time when that motive for respecting the worth or dignity will fade, diminish and disappear. As Catholics we know that personal dignity is not based on anything external to the person but based on the person himself.” This is something that the president of the United States should readily understand and respect. Sadly, while seeming to understand it, he fails to respect it. Instead, he puts scientific utility and purported medical pragmatism ahead of respect for human beings and this is unconscionable. There are things which simply should never be done, sanctioned or allowed and human cloning for any reason and embryonic stem cell research are among them. I am deeply saddened and grieved by his statements and his executive order.

     There can be a perception that I am a bit too rigorous in my insistence that Catholic healthcare needs to be significantly different from secular healthcare, not only in why we are involved in the provision of healthcare, but also in what we provide. The Catholic Church’s involvement in healthcare is certainly based on the message of Christ and his healing ministry. This is basic and fundamental. Why we are involved in healthcare needs to impact, in a very direct way, on what we do under the title of Catholic provision of care. For this reason, there are certain things which we ought never do in Catholic healthcare facilities. Certainly abortion falls into this category. This is rarely disputed. However, sterilization operations are contrary to human dignity as well and have no place in Catholic healthcare facilities. The unacceptability of assisted suicide is not at all disputed but dispensing contraception likewise dishonors the human person. Human experimentation, especially if it leads to certain death, is impossible to justify. These things may be seen by our society as either good or at least tolerable but Catholic moral principles see them for what they are, attacks on human dignity. If these things are done or condoned in Catholic healthcare facilities then a serious examination of conscience is in order.

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