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Pittsburgh Catholic Column: April 3, 2009

Moral status of human embryos

by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

President Obama has issued an executive order to permit federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. Apart from our religious beliefs, what are the moral issues at stake?

Supporters of such research might defend their view with the claim that human embryos aren’t persons; they don’t look remotely like us. The human embryos at stake (for now, frozen embryos) are otherwise useless. But these embryos can be used to help others if we extract their stem cells. This will kill the embryos, but that is of little significance compared with the good that may be achieved. Embryonic stem cells might bring cures and end the suffering of those who do look like us and who are or can be tremendously useful.

That, in essence, is the argument for human embryonic stem-cell research. Note these elements. First, human embryos are not human persons because they do not look like us. Since they are not human persons, their killing has little or no moral meaning. Finally, our use of them in this fashion is justified by the good it may produce for other humans. Let’s examine these elements in turn.

A moral drama of the greatest importance runs throughout human history. Who is human and, therefore, protected by the bonds of morality? Who looks enough like us to be accorded human rights? Some of our worst human tragedies turned on the wrong answers here.

Racism is based on the crude insight that "they" don’t look like us and, therefore, need not be treated as humans. Sexism has the same root, as does all ethnic and religious hatreds. "They" are different; therefore, not human; therefore, not protected by our common morality.

Indeed, there are great differences among people. But now we agree that such differences are insignificant against the common humanity below the surface of what appears. How deep must we go to find that human link among us?

One compelling contemporary answer comes from genetics. It is human DNA, completed at conception, that makes us human — regardless of how we appear to one another. This is the scientific answer to the question of membership in the human community. It is also the basis for the moral claim that human embryos are persons. They have the one distinctive trait all human life has: our completed DNA. Ironically, it is only because of this that the stem cells of human embryos are so potentially useful to other humans.

Therefore, every human life from conception to death is a human person. And every human person must have the protection of our moral code. The heart of that moral code is that it is wrong to kill humans. Of course, exceptions involving legitimate self-defense have been crafted over centuries of debate. But there is little to no moral debate on the first premise: it is wrong to kill a human person.

It follows that if human embryos are human persons, they may not be killed. Human embryos may not be killed even to save the health and life of other humans.

But why not allow a sacrifice of one barely significant human life if it can save and enhance the lives of so many others? The beneficiaries are humans, too. Moreover, we judge other actions by their consequences — as good if they lead to more good things, as bad if they bring bad consequences. Why not here?

Certainly, the intended beneficiaries are human. Their lives have moral value and we all want to end their suffering. Research using adult stem cells that involves no taking of embryonic life has led to some medical therapies, and this work should continue. Yes, we do judge many of our actions by their consequences. But we generally do — and we should — draw the line on such reasoning when it involves the killing of humans.

For example, we take great care to be sure that an organ donor dies naturally before removing organs for transplantation. But why should we wait if only consequences matter? The donor is dying anyway; organ recipients benefit from earlier transplants. Why not simply kill dying donors to maximize benefit to others? Why not kill all those nearing death for the organs they would yield? After all, at this point they barely look like us and they are, but for their organs, now wholly useless.

Similarly, why not take the lives of the severely handicapped for medical experimentation? Why not human life in utero, prisoners, anyone different and allegedly useless?

All of these possibilities are morally repugnant because we do not measure only consequences when we are dealing with human life. Instead we believe that it is wrong to kill human persons, even when other good consequences may be expected to follow from it.

So the argument for the experimental killing of human embryos is not persuasive. Embryos may not look like us, but they are genetically human and, therefore, human persons. Their lives and their deaths have moral meaning. We may not kill human embryos; not even if such killing can bring about good consequences. To accept that justification would undermine respect for all humans. It would be a major step backward in the historic movement to extend the borders of humanity from what appears to be different to what is fundamentally the same.