Friday, July 28, 2006


As is well known to most of y'all, I am not a huge fan of the Bush administration. However, there's a few things that I will doff my (proverbial) hat to when it comes to the President. One of those was the first exercise of his right to veto, when he vetoed a bill that would loosen the restriction on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Over here, the coverage was uniformly negative, combined with the instinctive anti-Bush attitude of the English media, and the pervasive anti-Americanism of the English-speaking elite. Opposition to embryonic stem cell research is perceived, it seems, in the same way as if one were proposing the reintroduction of slavery, say. It's all about "backwards dogmatism" versus "scientific progress" and how this is an opportunity for the Indian scientific establishment to shine, since the medieval-minded US President has shut down such activity in the US. [Not really. There's tons of ESCR going on in the US, privately]

Not surprisingly, the EU voted the other way, to expand funding for ESCR. John Allen's column explores the Catholic angle (the countries voting no were Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Lithuania, all majority Catholic. Spain, of course, voted for. No surprises there). In today's Tablet there's a very thoughtful piece (by John Cornwell, who's a scientist) on the issue, in light of the European bishops' call to Catholics to engage the issue in the public square. He mentions issues such as the mythic language that proponents of ESCR use, as well as the fact that the only research that has shown real scinetific promise is adult stem-cell research (which is morally unproblematic). The heart of the article seems to be about calling for an appreciation of individuation: the biological process by which the embryonic cells actually form individual organs and the uniqure individual characteristic of the person. He compares this to the idea of "ensoulment"
More persuasive on the score of embryonic experiments are those researchers, such as Professor Roger Pedersen of Cambridge University, who argue that reliable stem-cell therapies must be preceded by fundamental scientific understanding of the process of development from conception to birth. That we as Catholics should continue to listen to the scientists, especially when they speak about human development in the womb (although not necessarily by exploiting human embryos), is important, for many of our ethicists continue to fashion their arguments from notions of development harking back to a bygone age.

Those conversant with Thomas Aquinas on the subject are aware that he believed that "infusion" of the soul by God occurred in the male foetus at 40 days (and at 90 days for females). An area in which Catholic reproductive ethics might expand and prosper relates precisely to this matter of "ensoulment", which is often viewed simplistically as a process whereby an immaterial soul is introduced to a physical machine like a body in an instantaneous act of divine creation.

Through the latter half of the twentieth century Catholic theology, and papal teaching, set out to repudiate body-soul dualism, a return rather than a U-turn to an earlier view, shared by Judaism, that the soul is entirely embodied, that human identity is unitary and not dualistic. The notion of the soul, whether dualistic or unitary, has always been largely associated, moreover, with what makes us individual, what makes each one of us a unique member of the human race. Attention to what contemporary developmental biology has to say on diversity, uniqueness, individuation, is thus crucial.
He is careful to say that this attention does not mean that one would support the destruction of human embryos ...
The tendency to think of the individuation, or the ensoulment, of an embryo as an instantaneous act of God, may have served to obscure the reality of the complex biological process involved in the physical formation of physical individuality.To understand the soul, as embodied, and to grant that in many important respects individuality is the end of the process rather than an act of instantaneous creation does not mean, of course, that one would readily accept the destruction of human embryos for research. It might well result in a deepening of one's convictions against such projects.
If I understand correctly the point is that one should understand the biology better, since this can better inform ethics, and one's voice will be more palatable to those on the other side of the issue, rather than seeming to come out of the dark ages (Hence the analogy with creationists). One can hope.

No comments: