Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
enes

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Father Tad Pacholczyk

Making Sense of Bioethics

by Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Some humanitarian tragedies occur quietly and “in the background,” only gradually coming to light years or decades after serious harm already has occurred, like nerve damage in infants exposed to lead paint, or cancers in patients who were exposed to asbestos. More recently, the humanitarian tragedy of hundreds of thousands of embryonic human beings frozen and abandoned in fertility clinics has come to light — “orphans in ice” arising from the decades-long practice of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

As a priest and ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, I have seen an increasing number of Catholics who regret having engendered human life in this way, and regret that they ignored or weren’t informed about the teachings of the church on IVF and infertility. They are perplexed and even tormented about what to do with these “spare” human embryos who really are their cryogenic children.

When I am approached with this question, I stress that there are no easy answers. Human embryos can never just be thawed and discarded, as that would be morally indistinguishable from the case of discarding a newborn or an infant in a dumpster to die. In fact, the step of merely thawing out human embryos exposes them to great risk, with as many as half not being able to survive the process.

I usually suggest to parents that, for the time being, embryonic children should be kept frozen as a way of protecting them and respecting their life and integrity. As the discussion continues, I may also recommend that they consider setting up a trust fund, so that after they pass on, their frozen children will be provided for. These children, clearly, cannot be educated, clothed or fed, but they can be afforded a measure of protection in their frozen state, with fresh liquid nitrogen continuing to be provided, at least for a time. Arranging to cover this expense of a few hundred dollars a year is one of the few ways that parents can concretely indicate their concern for their orphaned children.

The suggestion to set up a trust fund sometimes results in an awkward moment of surprise where parents may ask: “Well, how long would I do that for? Obviously, I can’t do it forever.” Parents will have to decide for themselves whether setting up a trust fund in the first place makes sense as a kind of good-faith sign of their love and care for their own offspring, and if so, for how long to maintain the arrangement. If they make provisions for a more extended period, say several decades, there is a greater likelihood that their embryonic children might be “rescued” if new scientific technologies for growing embryos outside the body end up being developed in the future.

This may indeed become possible one day, even though there are real questions about whether such an “artificial womb” or “baby in a bottle” approach to gestation would be ethical, even with the praiseworthy intentions of saving lives and releasing orphaned embryos from their perpetual hibernation.

Others hope that one day “embryo adoption” – the transfer of “spare” embryos to another woman who implants, gestates and raises them as her own – might end up being recognized as morally allowable by the church. This unusual form of adoption is still morally debated, and Dignitas Personae, the most recent church document addressing the matter, raises serious concerns about the idea, as have a number of philosophers and bioethicists, myself included. When confronted with the absurd fate of having embryos trapped in a state of suspended animation indefinitely, few or no alternatives really seem to exist. The future Pope Benedict XVI, in another important church document called Donum Vitae, referenced this “absurd fate” when he summarized how there was “no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival that can be licitly pursued.” Certain sinful acts like IVF, sadly, can provoke irrevocable and irresolvable consequences.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a divorced woman who had seven frozen children in storage. She described how she agonized daily over the plight of her babies, and how it felt like an open wound that could never quite heal. She shared how each year, on the anniversary of the embryos’ creation – their “birthday” of sorts – she would place a call to the fertility clinic and inquire about their status. She would ask the staff to look up and verify how many were stored at the facility. Fearful that something might have happened to her children, or that they might end up being abandoned or forgotten, her annual call served as a reminder to herself and to those at the clinic that they were still there, that somebody still cared, despite the callousness of a world that seemed only too ready to ignore this ongoing humanitarian tragedy.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

Making Sense of Bioethics

Sometimes when there is infertility in marriage, couples make the decision to seek out the services of a surrogate in order to have a child. A surrogate is a woman who agrees to be implanted with an embryo produced by in vitro fertilization (IVF) and to hand over the newborn baby to the couple upon completion of the gestation and birth. In recent years, gestational surrogacy has become a multi-million-dollar industry, attracting a broad clientele ranging from married couples to single women, gay couples to anyone else with the desire for a baby and the ability to finance the undertaking. Surrogacy raises grave moral concerns, and powerfully undermines the dignity of human procreation, particularly when it comes to the women and children involved in the process.

One of the significant moral concerns around surrogacy is that it introduces fractures into parenthood by multiplying parental roles. Surrogacy coerces children into situations where they are subjected to the unhealthy stresses of ambiguous or split origins, perhaps being conceived from one woman’s egg, gestated by another woman, raised by a third and maybe even dissociated from their father by anonymous sperm donation. Such practices end up being profoundly unfair and dehumanizing for the children caught in the web of the process.

One woman, who was herself conceived by anonymous sperm donation, describes her experience this way: “My existence owed almost nothing to the serendipitous nature of normal human reproduction, where babies are the natural progression of mutually fulfilling adult relationships, but rather represented a verbal contract, a financial transaction and a cold, clinical harnessing of medical technology.”

Moreover, women who sign up as surrogates often feel deeply conflicted about giving up the baby at birth and tearing asunder an important nine-month connection and relationship that had been carefully developed and nurtured.

There can be no doubt that the hawkers and promoters of surrogacy exploit vulnerable, financially challenged women, often in overseas settings, to undergo the risks of drug-induced artificial pregnancy. While the proponents of the procedure will often portray these women as motivated primarily by a desire to help others, surrogates themselves will privately note how they do it for the money, and in the absence of substantial payments, wouldn’t be willing to move ahead with the arduous procedure.

Alex Kuczynski, describing her own experience of engaging a surrogate in a 2008 New York Times interview, speaks frankly: “We encountered the wink-nod rule: Surrogates would never say they were motivated to carry a child for another couple just for money; they were all motivated by altruism. This gentle hypocrisy allows surrogacy to take place. Without it, both sides would have to acknowledge the deep cultural revulsion against attaching a dollar figure to the creation of a human life.”

Indeed, surrogacy involves turning human life into a commodity on multiple levels, as Kathleen Sloan recently described in testimony given to a Minnesota state commission studying the issue. A seemingly unlikely opponent of the procedure, Ms. Sloan works as a pro-abortion feminist and director of the National Organization for Women in Connecticut. On gestational surrogacy, however, she agrees with pro-life criticisms, noting how it involves “children intentionally severed from genetic and biological sources of identity, human rights be damned. In essence, it is the ultimate manifestation of the neoliberal project of capitalist commodification of all life to create profit and fulfill the narcissistic desires of an entitled elite.”

Those narcissistic desires are readily catered to by an IVF industry that generates offspring in the laboratory for clients. In this process, extra embryonic humans are produced, stored and oftentimes orphaned in freezers, or even discarded outright by throwing them away as “biomedical waste.” In fact, the process of IVF, central to the practice of surrogacy, generally ends up killing more babies than it delivers. Coupled with the fact that contracting couples can pressure the surrogate mother to undergo an abortion if the in-utero child appears to be “imperfect,” or to eliminate a twin through “selective reduction” in a multiple pregnancy, it can hardly be disputed that children are pawns in the merciless endgame of satisfying parental and customer desires and corporate profit motives.

A woman’s reproductive powers and her God-given fecundity should never be reduced to the status of a “gestator for hire” or a “breeder,” as they are sometimes called by industry insiders, nor should women be exploited by allowing payment for harvesting their eggs. A woman’s procreative powers ought to be shared uniquely through marital acts with her husband, so that all the children born of her are genetically and otherwise her own. All children merit and deserve this loving consideration and assurance of protection at the point of their fragile and sacred beginnings.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org

fr tad pocholczyk hedshotColumn name: Making sense of bioethics

I was recently talking to a Massachusetts family with a 21-year-old son on the autism spectrum. Because of the Asperger syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder that have affected him since childhood, he is only about 13 or 14 in his understanding and behaviors. Jimmy (not his real name) has been in and out of mental institutions and recently had to be placed into a group home because his single mom could no longer manage him at home. Jimmy came from a good family, conscientious and Catholic, raised in a clean environment by his mother and grandmother, who hoped to see him cared for in a protected and secure setting at the group home. Soon they saw, however, that there were issues: the residents had unlimited TV access in their private rooms; there seemed to be high worker turnover; and some of the staff were not only heavy smokers but used foul language.

Things took an unexpected turn as Jimmy prepared to celebrate his 21st birthday. Others at the group home started pushing him to visit the strip club in a nearby town now that he was “going to be an adult.” Always guileless, and never hesitant to talk openly about whatever was going on around him, Jimmy blurted out to his grandmother that the group home staff were going to drive him the next weekend to the Foxy Lady Club.

A series of phone calls ensued. When the grandmother spoke with a staff member at the home, she was informed there was nothing she could do to prevent it, that the group home routinely offered transportation to the strip club not only for their residents, but for residents of the other group homes run by the same company in nearby towns. The staff member said that Jimmy was now 21 and the group home had to let him do what he wanted.

A second phone call to the staff supervisor resulted in the same song and dance: the group home had no choice but to cater to his wishes; he was within his legal rights now that he was 21; they would drive others at the home to the strip club, etc.

Finally, the grandmother called the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, which had contracted with the company running the group home, and spoke to the woman in charge of Jimmy’s case. The woman noted that Jimmy was not only within his legal rights, but it was, she asserted, a matter of basic human rights to allow him go to the strip club.

His grandmother replied that it would be a failure to care for persons with mental disabilities if caretakers facilitated sexually addictive practices, which such persons were prone to engage in anyway, often struggling with self-control and masturbatory behaviors, and that this might set them up for a trip back to the mental hospital. When she continued to protest that visiting such a club was not a good or moral activity, the official replied, “Well, if you’re concerned about ‘values,’ I leave my values at the door every time I go to work in order to get my job done.”

Cases like Jimmy’s serve as a disappointing reminder of how low the bar has come to be set in certain segments of our society. The misappropriation of public tax money by state agencies to subsidize damaging behaviors in a vulnerable patient population is also regrettable and fundamentally unjust. The family’s struggles further highlight an astonishing cultural misunderstanding around the idea of “human rights.” To suggest that the activity of leering lecherously at the bodies of naked women is a “basic human right” is itself a profound perversion, and represents a lamentable instance of outright moral bankruptcy.

Probably the most striking element of a case like Jimmy’s is the remarkably well-honed ability of some who serve in positions of authority and leadership – while professing to be “good” or even “religious” people – to jettison their values and beliefs the moment they are called upon to stand up and defend what is right.

Because individuals like Jimmy are consistently unable to make good decisions on their own behalf, it goes without saying that they require a guardian to attend to their interests and protect them. Yet legal guardians, like Jimmy’s grandmother, are finding themselves in the unenviable position of being ignored on certain issues by those entrusted with the care of institutionalized residents, apparently determined to bypass the guardian’s will whenever specific sexual agendas or views about “rights” need to be duly imposed.

Good parents never drive their children to strip clubs, and neither should any institution entrusted with a protective parental role; on the contrary, such institutions should erect appropriate boundaries and limits on harmful behaviors, so their residents can grow and flourish, contribute positively to society and perhaps one day become good and mature moral agents themselves.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

Making Sense of Bioethics by Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk

A growing concern today involves the role of pornography as the next generation’s instructor in human sexuality. For many young people, pornography has become the only guide to sexuality they have ever known. For Catholic parents, this raises the critical challenge of how best to approach these matters with their children, given that kids as young as 8 or 9 may already be acquiring information and viewpoints about human sexual behaviors from Internet pornography. I would like to present six practical suggestions for parents, culled from parental testimonies and insights, from other experts in the field, and from ex-users of pornography.

First, steer away from “The Talk” toward a more integrated approach. Having “The Talk” relies on the misguided notion that parents have educational content or factual knowledge that they are duty-bound to try to deposit into their children’s brains. This approach is not only awkward and paternalistic, but can convey a sense that sexual education is a one-time, get-it-over-with ordeal. Kids require ongoing guidance and support from their parents – an expressed willingness to enter into these important discussions that stress the beauty of sexuality in marriage and what it is really for, rather than just telling them what not to do or scaring them away from sexually transmitted diseases.

Second, be attentive to opportune moments to share wisdom and stories. Because we live in a highly pornified culture, opportunities for parents to share and discuss important value assessments regarding human sexuality with their children arise often. Driving by a billboard with a risqué picture or seeing something on TV might, for example, serve as an opportunity to note how it’s against the love of women to use them as sex objects. Passing through a part of town where prostitutes are plying their trade might spark a discussion about how many women involved in prostitution are victims of human trafficking and the vast majority wish they could break free of it, etc.

Third, avoid Internet access in the bedroom. Sometimes parents will say, “The kids have access at school and everywhere else, so I let them have unrestricted access at home – they’ve got to learn how to handle it anyway.” But the home setting needs to differ from the outside world, serving as an oasis and a protected environment for children. If someone offered to install a pipe into your child’s bedroom that could be turned on to pump in raw sewage, you would not agree to it. Yet many parents fail to restrict what is entering their children’s bedrooms through the Internet and TV.

Fourth, be wary of Internet access on cell phones. “Due diligence” with cell phones for children might mean looking for handsets that function strictly as phones without Internet access, or maybe the kids should be given a phone only at those times when they are dropped off at events like piano practice, soccer, etc. As children grow older and show signs of maturing, restrictions and limitations can be scaled back.

Fifth, monitor Internet usage. Check browser history, and make use of monitoring software, even though a particular child may be an angel. Keep the family computer in a shared space like the living room with the screen visible so family members can be aware of each other’s online activities. Laptops and tablets can pose an inadvertent temptation in this respect as teens sit cuddled up on the couch with screens not visible to others. In family life, we are called to serve as our brother’s keeper. Set limits on “screen time” for children, and maintain password/access control over devices. Have the neighbor’s kids deposit their electronic devices on the kitchen table during visits to diminish the temptation to slip away to a private part of the house and surf the net, perhaps with younger siblings in tow. Such practices may also serve to indirectly evangelize other families in the neighborhood regarding the serious threats from Internet porn.

Sixth, set appropriate rules regarding relationships, and be involved in the kids’ dating practices. Too often parents are tempted to take a “hands-off” approach to this area of their children’s lives. When I was growing up, we knew (and eventually appreciated) my father’s rule that we couldn’t date until we were 18. Setting appropriate rules for kids serves as a sign of a parent’s love and concern for them. Whenever parents determine that dating should begin, it offers further opportunities and occasions to discuss problems and scenarios that can help teens set moral boundaries

Talking to kids and helping them to become good stewards of the gift of human sexuality bestowed by God is hard work. In a culture that forcefully communicates a pornified counter-Gospel, though, it is certainly one of the most important and enduring gifts a parent can seek to provide for the happiness and well-being of their children.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did postdoctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

Making Sense of Bioethics

In the famous story of David and Goliath, Goliath boasts to the young David that after he kills him, he will give his flesh “to the birds of the sky and beasts of the field.” He conveys his profound disdain for David by speaking this way, deprecating even his corpse. This offends our sensibility that dead bodies should not be desecrated, but should instead be respectfully buried. Proper disposition and care of another’s body also manifests our Christian faith in the resurrection of that body on the Last Day. Over time, this has evolved into a deeper understanding about the handling of corpses, including regulations surrounding cremation.

For Catholics, cremation is considered an acceptable form of handling the human body after death, although, as noted in the Order of Christian Funerals, cremation “does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. .… The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in its rites.”

Moreover, cremation can lead to problematic practices, which Cardinal Raymond Burke references in a pastoral letter to the faithful in the Diocese of La Crosse in the year 2000:

“With the growing practice of cremation, there has also developed a certain lack of care for the cremated remains of the dead. Funeral directors who have been asked to store the cremated remains report that those remains often are left unclaimed by family or friends. Those charged with the arrangements for the funeral rites of the deceased should see that the cremated remains are interred or entombed at the earliest possible time. ... It is not permitted to scatter cremated remains over a favorite place, and it is not permitted to keep cremated remains in one’s home or place other than a cemetery. … The cremated remains of one deceased person may not be mixed with the cremated remains of another person. It is not permitted to divide the cremated remains and inter or entomb them in more than one place.”

These clearly articulated concerns remind us of our obligation to respect the remains of the dead, even in their ashen state. By becoming lax in our approach to handling cremains, we can easily betray the respect that is owed.

A story comes to mind involving a friend of mine who works as a pilot. He was asked to take up a passenger in a small plane for the “final repose of ashes” into the ocean. As they were taking off, he told the passenger, “Just be sure that you don’t ever open that urn! It needs to be thrown overboard when I open the hatch window and give you the signal.” The passenger, however, was determined to do it his way, and when the pilot opened the window, he popped off the top of the urn and tried to scatter the ashes at sea. Instead, the ashes were seized by the violent air currents and scattered throughout the internals of the airplane, among all the instrumentation and dials, and in the hair and clothing of both the pilot and the passenger.

Another reason to bury cremains in the earth or inter them in a mausoleum, rather than scattering them abroad, is to establish a particular place to be able to visit and pray for the soul of that person, in the physical presence of their mortal remains. The burial site serves as a point of reference and connection to the embodiment of that individual, rather than reducing them to a kind of vague and wispy nothingness.

Keeping Grandma’s ashes on the fireplace mantle or up in the attic alongside the antique paintings is another problematic practice that can easily end up downplaying or denying her human dignity, tempting us to treat her mortal remains as just another item to be moved around among our various trinkets.

It can be helpful to encourage the family, and all who are involved with cremains, to think about ashes in a manner similar to how we’d think about a full body. Would we keep a casket and corpse at home for a few weeks? If not, then we shouldn’t do the same with someone’s ashes. Regrettably, many people are not thinking about cremains as the revered remnants of a fellow human being, but more as something to be disposed of whenever it’s convenient to our schedule and budget. We don’t approach full-body caskets that way because we recognize more clearly the duty to bury our beloved dead. The sacred memory of our departed family and friends, in sum, calls us to carefully attend to their remains with authentic and objective gestures of respect.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

Making Sense of Bioethics

by Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk

 

Seeing through the intersex confusion

On rare occasions, babies can be born with ambiguous genitalia, and parents and physicians may be uncertain about whether a newborn is a little boy or a little girl. While testing for sex chromosomes is invariably part of figuring out these cases, the genetics alone may not always tell the whole story.

Both genes and physiological factors like hormonal conditions in the womb can contribute to our primary and secondary sex characteristics and, unsurprisingly, disorders in our genes or our in utero hormonal milieu can contribute to deflecting the development of our maleness or femaleness.

For the most part, our genetic sex (XX female or XY male) serves as the best guide to the true sex of an individual, though in rare situations, even the sex chromosomes themselves can have anomalies. For example, when somebody is born with Klinefelter Syndrome (XXY) they develop not only as a male due to the presence of the Y chromosome and its testosterone-producing influence, but also as a “feminized” male because of the influences of the additional X chromosome.

When strong hormonal influences are at play, as in another disorder called Congenital Androgenital Syndrome, a genetically normal XX female can have increased testosterone production by her adrenal glands, resulting in the development of external male-like genitalia, even though she also has ovaries, a vagina and a uterus.

While the term “intersex” is sometimes used to describe situations where an individual has non-standard genital anatomy, it typically has a broader range of meanings. Some have argued that a person has to be born with both ovarian and testicular tissue to count as being intersex, but “intersex” is an imprecise term that can describe a range of situations in which a person is born with an internal reproductive anatomy or an external sexual anatomy that is not in accord with the typical expectations for femaleness or maleness.

Sometimes the suggestion is made that intersex individuals are, in fact, neither male nor female, but fluid, malleable or “bisexual,” with sexual identity residing somewhere between male and female. This kind of explanation is untenable.

Human beings, along with most other members of the animal kingdom, are marked by an ineradicable sexual “dimorphism,” or “two-forms,” namely, male and female. When problems arise in the development of one of these forms, this does not make for a new “third form,” or worse, for an infinite spectrum of different sexual forms.

Instead, intersex situations represent cases in which a person is either male or female, but has confounding physiological factors that make them appear or feel as if they were of the opposite sex, or maybe even both sexes. In other words, the underlying sex remains, even though the psychology or gender they experience may be discordant. Put another way, intersex individuals may be “drawn away” from their intrinsic male or female sexual constitution by various anatomical differences in their bodies, and by opposing interior physiological drives and forces.

This can be further complicated because of strong cultural forces that contribute to the confusion by sanctioning a paradigm of complete malleability in human sexual behaviors that militates against an understanding of sex-based “hard-wiring.”

Even though it may not be popular to affirm the fact, people suffer from sexual development disorders in much the same way that they suffer from other kinds of developmental disorders, whether of the cardiac/circulatory system, of the nervous/intellectual system or others. No one, of course, should be subjected to bias or mistreatment due to a bodily disorder they may have been born with, but in treating such persons, we always strive to return their cardiac or intellectual functions to their proper baseline, rather than inventing a new abnormal as the norm and defining that as a “treatment,” as some are tempted to do with sexual development disorders.

While a newborn’s “intrinsic maleness” or “intrinsic femaleness” may be difficult to assess in certain more complicated intersex cases, the point remains that there is an “intrinsic” or “underlying” sexual constitution that we must do our best to recognize, respect and act in accord with. We must carefully acknowledge, nurture and accept our given embodied sexual nature as male or female. Willfully denying or acting against that given nature will constitute little more than a prescription for disillusionment and dishonesty.

Pope Benedict, in a December 2013 address, echoed these concerns when he mentioned the errors found in various new philosophies where “sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of … ”

To live in an ordered way, with an ordered masculinity or femininity, is certainly one of the great challenges of our time, and we can only undertake this important task by insisting on the correspondence of our minds to reality – especially to the deeply inscribed reality of our unique embodiment as male or female.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

 

Making Sense of Bioethics

Arguments in favor of research on human embryos typically play off our unfamiliarity with the way that we ourselves once appeared and existed as embryos. Humans in their tiniest stages are indeed unfamiliar to us, and they hardly look anything like “one of us.” Yet the undeniable conclusion, that every one of us was once an embryo, remains an indisputable scientific dogma, causing a “fingernails on the chalkboard” phenomenon for researchers every time they choose to experiment on embryos or destroy them for research.

To enable scientists to get beyond the knowledge that they’re experimenting on or destroying fellow humans, clever strategems and justifications have had to be devised. Among the more successful of these approaches has been the well-known “14-day rule.” This rule, as noted in a recent article in the journal Nature, represents

“a legal and regulatory line in the sand that has for decades limited in vitro human-embryo research to the period before the ‘primitive streak’ appears. This is a faint band of cells marking the beginning of an embryo’s head-to-tail axis. … The formation of the primitive streak is significant because it represents the earliest point at which an embryo’s biological individuation is assured. Before this point, embryos can split in two or fuse together. So some people reason that at this stage a morally significant individual comes into being.”

Most people have an instinctive moral awareness when they reflect on the reality that adults come from embryos. A particular conclusion organically follows, namely, that any decision to interrupt an embryo’s growth and development involves a willingness to destroy a prospective infant, child, teenager and adult. Even the natural potential for the splitting and fusing of embryos does not substantively alter the fact that adults arise from embryonic origins when traced back far enough along their particular developmental trajectories. If anything, the possibility that an early embryo might divide and make twins means that a decision to destroy such an embryo might involve “double” the evil, since two future adults are being exploited and exterminated rather than just one.

It is also worth emphasizing that the 14-day rule, despite protestations to the contrary, has not actually restricted real-world human embryo research to any appreciable degree because scientists have lacked the ability, until quite recently, to culture human embryos in the lab for any length of time beyond about a week. In fact, it was only in 2016 that several new studies figured out how to grow human embryos beyond what the 14-day rule might forbid. The rule, thus, was an agreed-upon convention of no practical significance for any researchers who may have been carrying out experiments on embryonic humans in recent decades. Considering the fact that the rule may now actually begin to hamper what some of them are interested in doing, they are pushing, unsurprisingly, to “revisit” and “recalibrate” the rule.

Historically speaking, the 14-day rule arose largely as a mechanism for justifying what had previously been considered immoral, even unthinkable, research. The rule enabled serious human rights violations to proceed apace under the pretext of providing restrictions and regulatory limitations. By feigning that the 14 day-rule was somehow an ethical tenet grounded in biological facts, promoters of the rule devised a clever way of offering lip service to the moral status of the human embryo. They implied that one could show respect for the human embryo through the establishment of such a rule, even though the rule objectively demonstrated no more respect for vulnerable humanity than German researchers during the war would have, had they declared a “14-year rule,” namely, that only concentration camp inmates below the age of 14 would be experimented upon. Whether 14 days or 14 years, such rules at root constitute mere contrivances to justify unethical science. As bioethicist Daniel Callahan observed back in 1995: “I have always felt a nagging uneasiness at trying to rationalize the killing of something for which I claim to have a ‘profound respect.’ What in the world can that kind of respect mean? An odd form of esteem – at once high-minded and altogether lethal.”

Hence, the broader strategic goal of conventions like the 14-day rule has been not to identify or set in place any objective moral lines nor to acknowledge authentic moral concerns, but to circumnavigate those very concerns by means of the convention, and achieve particular pragmatic outcomes, most notably: the continued expansion of the research, the minimization of “public outcry and backlash,” the continued availability of research funding, and the avoidance of legally restrictive embryo-protective measures that might be debated by justly concerned legislatures. The ultimate goal of a convention like the 14-day rule has been to establish the idea, erroneous at its core, that prior to a certain arbitrarily-determined time point, developing human beings can be deemed sufficiently different from us that an “us and them” chasm can be used to justify their violent exploitation.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

×
Catholic Transcript Magazine

READ THE LATEST ISSUE

aprilmagcover