Earlier this week, President Obama issued an Executive Order repealing President Bush’s August 2001 restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. This was no surprise, especially since, as Senator, he voted for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which was vetoed by President Bush.
While, the issues surrounding the creation and use of embryonic stem cells remain substantially the same, this change in political policy affords us another opportunity to reflect on how we, as Orthodox Christians, might approach this topic in the context of the public controversy.
There is no doubt that there has been a simmering resentment in the scientific community over these restrictions (spurred on in part by more general funding cuts for the National Institutes of Health). Obama gave voice to this during his campaign when he charged the Bush administration with “handcuffing” scientific progress.
There is also no doubt in my mind that researchers themselves are most competent to determine the value of this research vis à vis other methods, such as the recent breakthrough announced by Dr. Andras Nagy on March 1st about a new method to develop “pluripotent” stem cells that does not require the destruction of embryos.
This should not stop us, however, from making the case that scientific research also implies a tremendous responsibility to recognize moral boundaries, and must be held accountable.
Unfortunately, with a sustained positive spin in the media, public opinion is shifting. According to many polls, a strong majority of Americans support the lifting of President Bush’s restrictions.
We should remember that President Bush’s injunction had only prohibited the use of federal funds—tax-payer money—for research built on a fresh destruction of human life. That’s why, in 2004, California’s Proposition 71 was able to pledge $3 billion of state money for embryonic stem cell research. Privately funded research was never restricted in this way.
Federal funding is the major source of research dollars, however, and part of Bush’s strategy was to push researchers toward the kind of breakthroughs that Dr. Nagy reported. Likewise, Bush wanted to respect the conflicted consciences of millions of tax-payers who equated this type of research with murder.
While the Republican Party has a better record from this standpoint, and has for years been a more friendly place for those who oppose the destruction of nascent human life, Senator McCain still wanted to lift restrictions on using excess embryos created from In Vitro Fertilization procedures.
This is no small issue. In 2003, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) released a report estimating that more than 400,000 human embryos were sitting in freezers in the United States. We can easily imagine that there are many more today, as the popularity of IVF has grown.
And the numbers aren’t static. These aren’t the same embryos from year to year. In 2007, the London Times reported that more than 1 million embryos created for fertility treatment in British clinics have been destroyed over the past 14 years.
So where does this leave us?
First, as we are getting ready for our liturgical celebration of the Conception of Christ, the Annunciation, exactly nine months before the commemoration of his birth, we should recognize that oppositon to abortion—the destruction of human embryos—is one of the most ancient, universal, and well-established moral teachings of our faith.
As early as the first century, the Didache recognized that the practice of abortion was something that distinguished Christians from pagans, exhorting “do not murder a child by abortion.” St. Basil the Great, in the 4th century, stated clearly that “the distinction between what is formed and unformed” is inadmissible for Christians. These are only two small references to what is indeed “a great cloud of witnesses” in the Orthodox tradition.
What about the millions of “extra” embryos?
The moral principle here is simple. Immanuel Kant said it well: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” We have made these embryos a means to an end — the promise of better health, miracle cures, and scientific knowledge.
Rather than seek to benefit from their destruction, we should strive to end the practice of In Vitro Fertilization, which causes this problem in the first place.
We should be greatly disturbed by the facts. There is a deep shadow in our country, and we cannot avoid the truth that we are witnessing a tremendous holocaust of human life.
At the very least, we need to stand firmly with those who oppose these things, even with all the negative media heaped on President Bush, Pope Benedict XVI and others. We may be unpopular, maligned and misunderstood, and it may be that we are fighting a losing battle—but that is no excuse.
I am reminded of the words of Psalm 123 (122 in the Septuagint) that we sing at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts during Great Lent: “Our eyes wait upon the Lord our God… Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorning of those that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud.”
If nothing else, we must remain faithful as witnesses to the teaching that God has given us, as a sign of God’s love in the current age. Orthodox Christians have well learned over the centuries that the worst that can happen to us in our stand for the dignity of human life is martyrdom.