The Press and Embryos
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
August 2001

The press characterized President George Bush’s decision on whether to fund embryonic stem cell research as a “defining moment” in his presidency. So newsworthy was the event that it was broadcast live during prime-time hours. The next day, the decision was on the front page of every paper and the next Sunday, the decision was the topic on all the news magazine shows.

Whatever one thinks about the decision, the attention it received is noteworthy in a nation that too often seems to have little interest in moral issues. Only a year ago, few people knew what was a stem cell. What happened? Several factors contributed to the attention given to this debate. Both sides of the debate heavily lobbied pubic officials and the public and the nation had relatively few other issues to attract the media’s attention.

Perhaps more importantly, for the media, the issue had all the drama of a
Sophie’s Choice. Do we give hope to victims of disease or do we protect human embryos? The issue seemed to be full of moral dilemmas pitting churches, scientists, and politicians against each other. The media loves this type of stuff.

In actuality, that choice presented was a mischaracterization. We can give hope to victims of disease and still protect human embryos, since adult stem cells are available for research. Also, the moral “dilemma” that supposedly exists is really not that complicated. As in the abortion debate, any credible scientist recognizes that human embryos are human lives. The only question is whether they can be destroyed. That is not a question concerning fact, but a question concerning morality and any moral system that recognizes the inherent value of human life will conclude that human embryos cannot be destroyed for any reason.

So, this was not, as some have said, a question of “potential human life” versus “saving adult life.” There was no “potential human life,” only actual “human life.” Nor was this an issue of “human life” versus “saving adult life.” The claims that research that destroys human embryos would save lives are only that -- claims. Indeed, it seems that weekly there is new research indicating that the claims are exaggerated. The certainty in this issue was the destruction of the embryos, not the saving of adult life.

The other problem with claiming that allowing funding of research would save adult human lives is that it assumes that these adults have a right to benefits of the research. Now, let’s get this clear. The Church clearly teaches that all persons have right to basic health care and our compassion as Christians extends to those suffering from incurable diseases. We hope for and work for cures, treatments, and better care for all who suffer. However, no one has a right to every conceivable treatment. Respect for all human life and the demands of justice necessarily limit what is acceptable within the realm of the possible. Some of the advocates for destructive embryo research -- often Hollywood celebrities -- sound as if they have a right to the product of such research merely because it exists. They don’t. It is only our arrogance that makes humanity think it can have everything available in the name of progress. If we do not learn to recognize our limits we risk becoming what T. S. Eliot described as an “age which advances progressively backwards.”

We should welcome media attention to such important issues, but we need always question the underlying assumptions that make an issue newsworthy.