Tuesday, August 24, 2004

I'm trying to wade into this stem cell research debate slowly. There's too much to sort out. I'd been waiting for emotions to die down, but that's not going to happen anytime soon. So I figure why wait?

I found this page from NIH which is a primer on stem cells. The official Catholic position is against embyonic stem cell research because life begins at conception (although the Church is very murky on this point) and destroying the a 3-5 day old blastocycst is destroying life (or at least the Church says the embryo should be treated as a full human person even if the Church does not take a position on when actually ensoulement occurs).

One thing I will say is that I think the Church needs to come clean about the science of what goes on in conception. Decades ago, the authority to declare someone dead in the Church's eyes was with the Church, especially because death was a spiritual event, i.e, soul leaves body. But after science began to challenge the simplicity of our view of death by resuscitating the dead, even hours after they had died, the Church wisely stepped out of the death defining business.

Will that ever be the case with the beginning of human life? Will the Church ever decided to let science determe when life begins just as it surrendered that determination in the case of death?

Not anytime soon. Only because of the politics not because of truth itself. Abortion and pro-life/choice politics is hot enough right now, the Church cannot afford to unilaterally disarm.

However, my complaint with the way the Church is proceeding on this issue is that it has taken a popular dogmatic position that is not based in science and will not budge. It is almost as though science has to do something to disprove the dogmatic assertion about the moment when human life begins. (Note that technically, the Church's position is murky in when life begins, but its public position is "definitive")

The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH: INSTRUCTION ON RESPECT FOR HUMAN LIFE IN ITS ORIGIN AND ON THE DIGNITY OF PROCREATION REPLIES TO CERTAIN QUESTIONS OF THE DAY 1987.

The issue of twinning is the particular issue that has made me very hesitant on embracing the Church's position on stem cell research. From what I understand, some identical twins are formed when a fertilized egg splits-these are monozygotic twins. Also from what I understand, the process of twinning can take place within the first 14 days after the egg is fertilized.

If this is the case then when the egg is fertilized, is it one soul that splits into two souls eventually, or is it two souls formed at conception and the egg split mirrors that? I think that to say that it is two souls originally and not one soul splitting would be stretching the issue to the point of ridiculousness. So if it is one soul that splits into two, I'd say 'Houston, we have a problem' with the Church's position.

The other thing that has perplexed me is the fact that in some cases, twinning does occur and then the two eggs reunite and become one individual. This is officially freaky. If the soul is a full and complete soul at conception, then splits into two souls for the twinning process and then these two souls recombine to form one soul prior to implantation, we then really do have a problem with starting from uncompromising dogma.

The fact is that before implantion, the fertilized egg can split up to become twins and then recombine to be on individual. This presents horrible problems for full ensoulment at conception. I think the more reasonable thing to do would be to work with science and establish the science and facts regarding the first few days of existence and then provide the theological and philosophical context for the process. Neither faith nor science alone has the key, but an uncompromising bias towards any pole doesn't do the issue justice.

Anyway, I still need to hash it out, but I refuse to hold an apriori dogma to the extent that I ignore the facts. I do believe that life begins at conception, but I think Kerry was articulating a common sense position that it is a "form of life." After all, Aquinas and others in the Catholic tradition, so the process from "conception" to full ensoulment as a process from stage to stage.

Benedict Ashley, a Dominican Catholic Bio-ethics expert, has the following article on the issue: "Clonning, Aquinas and the Embryonic Person."


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