A Critique of the USCCB Statement on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

By a vote of 191-1 U.S. Catholic bishops passed a statement (PDF) addressing embryonic stem cell research. The bishops believe that “[d]irect attacks on innocent human life are always gravely wrong” (p. 2) and therefore oppose embryonic stem cell research. They then comment briefly on three arguments in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

The first argument in favor of embryonic stem cell research is that the ends justify the means. I have no intention of defending this view against the statement by the bishops.

The second argument in favor of embryonic stem cell research is that the embryo is not a human being with fundamental human rights. I am in agreement with the bishops that an embryo is a member of the species Homo sapiens. Where our disagreement occurs is regarding the question of when it is morally permissible to end a human life. I think the bishops are less than convincing in defending their view on this point. They begin by saying (p. 3-4):

Others, while acknowledging the scientific fact that the embryo is a living member of the human species, claim that life at this earliest stage is too weak or undeveloped, too lacking in mental or physical abilities, to have full human worth or human rights. But to claim that our rights depend on such factors is to deny that human beings have human dignity, that we have inherent value simply by being members of the human family. If fundamental rights such as the right to life are based on abilities or qualities that can appear or disappear, grow or diminish, and be greater or lesser in different human beings, then there are no inherent human rights, no true human equality, only privileges for the strong. As believers who recognize each human life as the gift of an infinitely loving God, we insist that every human being, however small or seemingly insignificant, matters to God—hence everyone, no matter how weak or small, is of concern to us.

First, there is no reason to believe that humans have inherent value by virtue of being Homo sapiens. Second, basing human rights on human characteristics does not necessarily lead to a world where might makes right. For example (and it is only an example, not a recommendation), if we imagine a world where human rights are granted to creatures with an IQ of over 50 that does not entail that, in such a world, strong humans are morally allowed to kill weak humans on a whim. Third, the bishops provide no scriptural argument in support of the notion that embryonic life matters to God to such an extent that God views the killing of embryos as immoral. I am unaware of any biblical passage that remotely addresses the issue of killing embryos. When it comes to this issue, we Christians must address it on a purely secular level.

The third argument addressed by the bishops is handled in this way (p. 4):

Finally, some claim that scientists who kill embryos for their stem cells are not actually depriving anyone of life, because they are using “spare” or unwanted embryos who will die anyway. This argument is simply invalid. Ultimately each of us will die, but that gives no one a right to kill us. Our society does not permit lethal experiments on terminally ill patients or condemned prisoners on the pretext that they will soon die anyway. Likewise, the fact that an embryonic human being is at risk of being abandoned by his or her parents gives no individual or government a right to directly kill that human being first.

The problem with the bishops’ response here is that there is a critical difference between embryos, on the one hand, and terminally ill patients, condemned prisoners, and abandoned children, on the other.  An embryo cannot value its own life whereas terminally ill patients, condemned prisoners, and abandoned children can value their lives.

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