When President Obama revoked a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research he invited some Pro-life bloggers to claim again that he is a “baby killer.” The controversy is not new. When still a candidate, Obama indicated he would reverse the prohibition that Bush had decreed on government-sponsored research with embryos. (Bush did nothing about privately-funded, for-profit research). This is certainly a moral issue that walks the boundary line that separates Church from State because no one claims the government or private enterprise has a license to kill a living person. But is an embryo a human person? When asked by Pastor Rick Warren about this issue, candidate Obama indicated that decisions about when conception takes place were above his “pay grade.” This is rare humility for any politician.
Catholic theological teaching is unequivocal: the human soul is infused by God at the moment of conception. The biological issue of when exactly conception can be considered to have occurred is less clear. Cardinal Rigali, head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on such matters has quoted some doctors who make fertilization of the embryo the moment of conception. Those embryos have souls, it would be said. Other doctors, perhaps a majority of fertility experts, state conception takes place only after that fertilized embryo is implanted in the womb and grows as a fetus.
Which medical opinion should the Church follow? Is the person in an embryo or only in a fetus? To avoid this dilemma, the church has long spoken against in vitro fertilization. But recognizing the moral issues of the world, the late Pope John Paul II appointed a Pontifical Commission of doctors to offer informed opinions on the biological issues. After admitting that there were sound arguments for both moments, they recommended that the Church take the “safer” position of a soul to the embryo, rather than the fetus. But “safer,” tutior in Latin, means that the other position is still “safe.”
Critics of the Church’s position often accuse Catholicism of protesting stem cell research out of a malevolent or medieval obsession. However, it would be a fallacy to say that Catholicism is against stem cell research: only the embryonic stem cells present the moral dilemma. Catholics agree that scientific research on stem cells is valuable, but they want to use adult stem cells, not the embryos. The tutior position of the Church says that even if an embryo may not be a human person in a biological sense, it has the potential of becoming so. In Catholic theology, potential human beings share rights with actual human beings. That principle should be upheld by every Catholic, for otherwise the door is opened to the murder of people on life support, the impaired and the like.
However, the abandonment of embryos by couples who have decided not to use these frozen stem cells has created a new situation. If the law makes it impossible for these embryos to be used except by a deceased couple who no longer pay to have them preserved, have they lost the potential to grow into human beings by artificial insemination? If they are otherwise to be destroyed, then does not the good that can be done to heal disease outweigh protecting a non-existent potential? Theologians must advise the bishops that there is a difference between metaphysical potentiality and this specific case. Metaphysical potentiality says: “Any child born in the United States can grow up to be president.” But this generality evaporates in the specific case of a Downs Syndrome child.
These are deep, delicate and daunting issues. They are not resolved by “baby killer” accusations or by cavalier dismissal of Catholic moral concern. While President Obama may not be making decisions in accord with the “safer” instruction about the soul, his policy falls within the parameters set for science by Catholic theology. And maybe it should be that way. I’d hate to see a president invoking theology as a basis for policy: that would turn the democracy into a theocracy. A better political course would be for Catholic America to press for research into the use of non-embryonic stem cells, transforming a divisive issue into one focused on healing the sick.