March 19, 2005


Oy Vitae: Jews vs. Catholics in the stem cell debate. (William Saletan, Slate, 3/11/05)

Last week I watched the President's Council on Bioethics discuss an idea to solve the stem cell debate. The idea was to tweak a gene in the cloning process so that the resulting "biological artifact" would grow human stem cells without developing the structure of an embryo. Charles Krauthammer called the idea troubling. Robert George said if the product wasn't an embryo, it was OK. Michael Sandel said it was creepy. Peter Lawler said the key was to avoid destroying embryos. Leon Kass, the council's chairman, said it might seem acceptable to some people but dubious to others. Afterward, I asked some council aides what they thought. At their previous meeting, council members Mary Ann Glendon and Alfonso Gomez-Lobo had all but endorsed the proposal. With a couple of exceptions, the reactions fell into two camps. Catholics leaned one way, Jews the other. . . .

This is the gauntlet that awaits the conference's two main presenters. One is a team of medical experts from Columbia University, Drs. Don Landry and Howard Zucker. Their plan is to define embryonic death as "the irreversible arrest of cell division," so that cells can be harvested at that point—without destroying a living embryo—to make stem cell lines. The other plan, by Bill Hurlbut, a member of the president's council, is the one that would create "artifacts." Landry, Zucker, and Hurlbut have come here to sell their proposals to the church in the hope that the church, in turn, will help sell these proposals to politicians and the public. Hurlbut has been running his ideas by Pacholczyk and other priests all along. The science and the religion are interwoven. Landry has the lingo down: intrinsic, person, human dignity. When a priest compares embryonic cell harvesting to fetal tissue harvesting, Landry replies, "In abortion, the objective is death." Hurlbut says legalized abortion has become a "travesty" and is "not altogether unfairly called the silent holocaust."

Hurlbut gets an A for effort, but the priests conclude that his science needs work. Father Nicanor Austriaco, a white-robed Dominican brother with a doctorate in biology from MIT, uses PowerPoint to demonstrate that the gene Hurlbut wants to delete, cdx2, doesn't affect an embryo until at least the eight-cell stage. This means Hurlbut's "artifact" would develop just like an embryo until then, which raises theological problems. Austriaco cites lab data indicating that the embryonic axis begins to form at the two-cell stage. Therefore, the only moral approach is to delete a gene that enables differentiation at the first cell division. . . .

Monday night at dinner, I ask Austriaco if he sees a Catholic-Jewish difference on these questions. He does, particularly among theologians. Jews follow diffuse commentary, he says; Catholics follow streamlined authority. Jews trust intuition; Catholics trust reason. "You don't have as clear a definition of boundaries as we have," he observes. This is why Catholics have an easier time getting over the yuck factor. "We say, 'Yeah, it looks yucky.' But I'm a molecular biologist. We make tumors in the lab all the time. For a Catholic, if I can articulate what I'm doing, it's not yucky." . . .

It turns out that Catholic faith in reason cuts both ways. It can dispel the yuck factor but can just as easily override our sense of goodness. That's the inadvertent lesson of Pacholczyk's morning presentation on women who "adopt"—i.e., implant and carry to term—IVF embryos. He asserts that such adoptions are intrinsically evil. I stare at him in disbelief, but he makes a case. Procreation is unitary; therefore, just as it's wrong to have sex without openness to pregnancy, it's wrong to get pregnant without sex. What if a woman has hired a clinic to cultivate IVF embryos and is on the table ready to have them implanted? Pacholczyk says she should "stop the train of evil"—get up and leave the clinic. The embryos must be left in limbo because they can't be "licitly" implanted.

Father Thomas Williams, the dean of university's theology school, makes the opposite case. Pacholczyk's theory collapses, he says, because it implies that IVF embryos are "partially procreated children." "All beings are either persons or non-persons," Williams argues. "From a Catholic perspective, there's no such thing as partial persons, part something and part someone." It's an incisive critique, but I'm struck by its tone. I look at Williams' written speech, then at Cohen's. Each is 13 pages. I count the question marks. Williams has seven. Cohen has 21. Pacholczyk actually quoted one of Cohen's essays in his talk. He misattributed the quote to Levin, maybe because Cohen and Levin write in the same language. The quote ended with two questions.

It isn't that the Catholics are incurious; they're insatiable. Over evening cocktails, Austriaco says he's been online today looking at hydatidiform moles—eggs that have been fertilized by two sperm, or by one sperm after losing the egg nucleus. He's discovered cases of fraternal twins in which one becomes a fetus and the other a mole. He recalls the Dec. 3 meeting of the president's council, at which Hurlbut outlined the artifact idea. That's where I learned about cdx2, the gene Hurlbut wants to tweak. Austriaco was there, too—he wanted to see whether Hurlbut would be questioned about cdx2. Why? "I knew the Catholic theologians had problems with cdx2," he says. They had already hashed out the genetics.

Technology and the odd happenstance that the left has come to define itself through what conservatives call the culture of death has opened a new fundamental western political question: who has a soul? Do embryos? Pro-lifers say yes and pro-choicers say no. Does Terri Schiavo? Her parents say yes; her husband, “no.” Peter Singer argues that animals have souls and soon we will have to pass on the souls of new machines.

As a result, the great moral questions we now face turn on whether we are dealing with a person and whether that makes a difference. If speaking of souls is uncomfortable, we can use "consciousness" or "essential humanity", but all but the most extreme among us assume that there is a line, more or less bright, between human and non-human, and that a right to dignity exists on one side of the line, but not on the other. Those who favor abortion rights understand that their cause is furthered if they can convince us that a blastocyst is just a clump of soulless cells. Those who oppose fetal stem cell research argue that that same blastocyst partakes of human dignity and can no more be sacrificed for the good of another than you or I.

The current fight over feeding Terri Schiavo comes at this same question from the opposite direction and is all the more illuminating for it. Starving Terri Schiavo is thinkable only because she cannot more obviously communicate with us. We define her humanity in terms of how she interacts with us. Those who are willing to acquiesce in her death argue that her life is not worth living – that they would prefer death to living as she does – because she is closed off from the human community. Those who are fighting to keep Terri alive believe that she is still essentially human even apart from the community. They believe that Terri has a soul; that she still possesses her inalienable right to life, liberty and whatever happiness is left to her.

Having gotten you to this point, I am tempted to spin off into a larger, world-clarifying pompous oversimplification, as is my wont. For the last century and a half, the left has viewed the worth of the individual largely through his usefulness to the community. Communism does so explicitly; much of the American left does so implicitly. Before usefulness has set in, or after it has passed, the individual is of little concern and may be disposed of just as any parasite. The right, or at least the American right, treading the path of Judeo-Christian culture, reinforced by bourgeois individualism, has come to see the dignity of the individual as the centerpiece of a healthy society. Or, is this just another instance of people having to define the "other", protecting those within the circle that is "us", and those outside of no concern.

Though there is some truth here, life is not that simple. Some of those who support Terri’s death sincerely believe that they are protecting her human dignity. Some who oppose her death have less creditable motives than a concern for her soul. The life and death of one woman can be seen as a small event in the world or, on its own terms, as a tragedy. But in the end, we are faced with deciding whether embryos, or Terry Schiavo or clones or cyborgs or intelligent computers are human. The only sensible distinction to make is that humans have a soul, however defined. It is frustrating, then, that we can't see the soul or define consciousness.

In the end, we are like blind men on a path who have heard rumors of a cliff; indeed, we have heard the screams of those who have ventured too close to the abyss. Yet certain of our company argue that between the path and the cliff, there is a green meadow of unknown size in which we can rest from a journey well-ended. What can we do, other than stick to the marked path and give the cliff a wide berth?

Posted by David Cohen at March 19, 2005 10:30 PM

Thank you from the bottom of my heart, David. You have made my 7th day.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 19, 2005 12:08 PM

That is a very thoughtful, insightful discussion of a very difficult subject, David. I agree with your closing paragraph wholeheartedly.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 19, 2005 1:03 PM

Thank you, David.

Posted by: Peter B at March 19, 2005 8:20 PM

The meadow though is boring. The dance along the cliff's edge so thrilling...

Posted by: oj at March 19, 2005 10:26 PM

If Terry Schiavo had starred in "Superwoman", we'd find a way not to kill her.

If she were a corporation, we'd indict her "husband", the CFO.

If she were a killer, she'd be protected under the supreme court's ban on executing the retarded.

If she were a terrorist, Teddy Kennedy would be making speeches about her torture-by-starvation.

If she were Nicole Brown Simpson, would we let OJ and the 9th Circuit decide her treatment options?

As for cloning, we've gone from horse & buggies to Mars in the lenght of one lifetime. But human nature has changed not a whit since Calvary. Yet we seem to be hell-bent on farming humans--California has even passed Human Farm Subsidies already. We're putting ourselves in the moral position of amputating our daughter's foot to save our son's arm.

If we err, let's err on the side of innocent life.

Not Mad Science.

Posted by: Noel at March 19, 2005 11:56 PM

I was particularly struck by Austriaco's comment that Catholics have an affinity with hierarchal authority and linear thinking (reason), while Jews are more comfortable with diffuse authority and intuition. I've never stumbled across a more concise explanation of why I'm a former Catholic.

It's also striking in light of our host's recurring emphasis on the limits of reason. OJ austutely points out reason's foundations of sand, but at the same time does not seem comfortable with intuition. I can't recall his ever raising the concept, despite the strong evidence on this blog that he has truly phenomenal intuitive abilities.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 20, 2005 1:08 AM

Intuition is not the basis for anything, except the personal justification of our own human weaknesses. Both reason and intuition are a form of self-exaltation.

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 20, 2005 7:38 AM

What's left Randall?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 20, 2005 11:38 AM

Mr. Duquette: Faith.

Posted by: Buttercup at March 20, 2005 12:25 PM

Buttercup, et al -

The neato thing about blind faith, like blind reason, is that it is a closed system which answers all questions. Very comforting, that.

My roommate for two years in college was a confirmed atheist. Bolstering OJ's theory of the rejected patriarch, he had become estranged from a father he had once loved. As had his mother, to whom he was still close. Interestingly, there was a strong history of depression (perhaps bipolar disorder) in his family. His grandfather ... maternal grandfather, I believe ... had recently hanged himself. Curiously, perhaps, I played the role OJ often lays on this blog, challenging him to reexamine his beliefs and assumptions.

I recently saw him again for the first time since graduation day and learned that he, himself, fell into the jaws of depression in his late 20's. He sought professional help, but resisted medication and turned instead to religion. He became an evangelical Christian and has managed to keep himself safe through the power of blind faith alone. (Warning: that's not always an effective "treatment".)

His unwavering faith is a wondrous thing to behold. While it makes me uncomfortable ... he fanatically clutches an incredibly worn Bible which has seen him through his most dark and dangerous moments ... there is no way I would challenge that faith. And no way I would doubt its power.

But it's not for me. My innate and experiential forces are my own.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 20, 2005 2:43 PM

Robert -- Faith is a gift of God; and, ghostcat, it is not blind, it is the evidence of things unseen and the substance of things hoped for -- as you have witnessed with your friend.

Unfortunately, though we have been promised to find what we seek, this is a paradox; how can we know what to seek? The answer to this paradox is the gift of faith.

The alternative is self-exaltation, something even the Greeks understood.

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 20, 2005 9:35 PM