Theology or Embryology?

February 2006. Embryonic stem cell researchers typically marshal several arguments to encourage public approval and funding for their research, which requires the direct destruction of 5-7 day old human embryos. One argument runs like this: "Well, that's your feeling about embryos, your narrow religious viewpoint, and you shouldn't impose that on me. Your sentiments about embryos are different than mine, and we're all entitled to our own sentiments and opinions." This pervasive argument has embedded itself in the modern American mind to a remarkable degree, and has been used quite effectively to justify embryonic sacrifice by many researchers. At its root, advocates take a scientific question and turn it into a religious one. Once it falls into the category of religious mystagogy, it can be dismissed out-of-hand as irrelevant to public policy and discourse. Embryonic stem cell researcher Dr. Doug Melton at Harvard recently took exactly this tack when he spoke with the New York Times: "This is all about differing religious beliefs. I don't believe I have the right to tell others when life begins. Science doesn't have the answer to that question; it's metaphysical." With that sleight of hand, he sought to transform embryology into theology. The fact is, of course, that the statement, "a human embryo is a human kind of being" does not depend on religion any more than the statement "a cow embryo is a cow kind of being" does. Science, quite apart from any narrow, dogmatic religion, affirms dogmatically that human embryos are human beings, rather than zebra or cow beings. Science, quite apart from religious dogma, affirms dogmatically that every person walking around in the world was once an embryo. This scientific dogma admits of no exceptions and is absolute. So while science makes it clear that human embryos are human beings, religion steps in after that fact to speak to the question of whether it is correct that all human beings should be treated in the same way, or whether it is OK to discriminate against some in the interests of others. Yet even here, religion is not necessary to understand the real moral issue. For example, we don't need religion to understand that discriminating against some classes of humans based on their skin color is wrong. Similarly, we don't need religion to understand that discriminating against some classes of humans based on their size or young age is wrong. To grasp these truths, all we need is some honesty and a moment of clear thinking.
Embryos, of course, are remarkably unfamiliar to us. They lack hands and feet. They don't have faces or eyes for us to look into. Even their brains are lacking. They look nothing like what we are used to seeing when we imagine a human being. But they are as human as you and me. When we look at a scanning electron micrograph of a human embryo, a small cluster of cells, sitting on the point of a sewing pin, we need to ask ourselves a very simple question: "Isn't that exactly what a young human is supposed to look like?" The correct answer to that question doesn't depend on religion or theology, but on embryology. Embryos seem unfamiliar to us on first glance, and we have to make an explicit mental effort to avoid the critical mistake of disconnecting from who we once were as embryos.
I remember flying in an airplane one time, seated a couple of rows away from a mother who was holding her newborn baby as he was crying loudly. The pressure changes in the cabin seemed to be causing terrible pain in his ears, and despite his mom's best efforts, he continued to cry loudly and uncontrollably. He had a little 4 year old sister in the next seat, who was also trying to help her mom to calm the boy down, but again, to no avail. After a few minutes, an agitated man across the aisle blurted out to the mother, "Isn't there something you can do to shut up that baby?" There was an awkward moment where the young mother started to blush, and didn't know what to say, when suddenly her daughter turned to the man and said, "Hey mister, you were once like him." The man seemed to be caught off guard by the little girl's logic, and he calmed down for the rest of the flight. Her impeccable reasoning reminded him where he came from and put him in his place. It demonstrated how all of us, even in our weakest moments, are deserving of respect. After we landed, I heard him offer a brief apology to the mother for his outburst against the helpless baby. In debates about embryos, when apparently learned men like Dr. Melton at Harvard begin discussing these tiny, helpless human creatures, they would likewise do well to ponder the little girl's rejoinder: "Hey mister, you were once like him."
Even though it is a fundamental embryological truth that you and I were once embryos ourselves, the advocates of this research are eager to portray human embryos as different from the rest of us, unable to make the grade, and hence fair game for destruction by those of us lucky enough to have already passed through those early and vulnerable embryonic stages ourselves. Will we permit radical injustices and ethical transgressions like these to become systemic and promoted as the societal norm? Will advocates be permitted to get away with confusing embryology and theology in the public square? Will the powerful like Dr. Melton be permitted to violate and instrumentalize the weak on our watch? These are questions with enormous implications for the future of our society.
Mr. Rogers, the famous children's TV personality, once gave a talk where he mentioned his favorite story from the Seattle Special Olympics. Here's how he described it: "Well, for the 100-yard dash there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying; they slowed down, turned around and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, "This'll make it better." And the little boy got up and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long, time. People who were there are still telling the story with great delight. And you know why. Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win too."
This beautiful story of everyone turning around and looking after the interests of the weakest and the most vulnerable reminds us of exactly the kind of society God wants us to build, one where every life, even the weakest embryonic life, is embraced as a gift and treasure of infinite and irreplaceable value. With God's help and our determined efforts, that is the kind of society we must aspire to build in the future.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See