Catholics Oppose Pro-Life Stem Cell Methods

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The top Vatican bioethicist has spoken out against the new stem cell method that seems to be able to produce embryonic stem cells without killing embryos. [hat tip: Mark Olson] One might expect pro-lifers might be cautious in case the facts are not as they have been presented. Still, this sort of criticism is a little surprising. Is this really the standard Catholic view? It seems to me to be based on very strange reasoning.

As far as the article reports, this is the reasoning. This method relies on in vitro fertilization, which the Roman Catholic Church opposes in general. I understand the argument that in vitro fertilization if immoral as it's often practiced, with far more embryos created than are implanted to be developed. A consistent pro-life view will oppose that practice. But opposing in vitro fertilization in principle? That just seems irrational. The explanation seems to be that in vitro fertilization necessarily replaces conjugal relations in a way that artificial insemination may or may not do so. So artificial insemination can be ok or wrong, depending on whether it replaces conjugal relations. But in vitro fertilization always replaces conjugal relations.

This argument makes absolutely no sense. How many people who engage in in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination do so to avoid having sex? The only people I can think of are single moms who have someone donate sperm without engaging in sex, but I would hope the Catholic church doesn't oppose unmarried people not having sex. The ordinary married couple who uses in vitro methods to conceive is not doing so to avoid sex. They're doing so because sex is insufficient to cause conception in their case, and they're hoping in vitro methods will succeed. That doesn't mean they've abstaining from sexual relations. People do abstain from sexual relations for reasons other than prayer if they're using natural family planning to avoid conception, and that does go against biblical teaching, but that isn't what goes on in the ordinary case of in vitro fertilization. This objection just doesn't make any sense.

Another issue listed is that in vitro fertilization often results in the destruction of embryos. But that's like saying that it's wrong to test for genetic defects because that often results in abortion. The fact that people use genetic defects to decide whether to have an abortion might be downright evil, but that can't itself mean that the genetic tests themselves are immoral, particularly if the person doing it thinks abortion is immoral and would never consider it an option. In the same way, someone using in vitro fertilization who would insist on implanting every viable embryo created is not doing anything that violates pro-life convictions. Maybe they're just thinking that the non-viable embryos get destroyed, but that happens incredibly often with ordinary sexual intercourse, and no one bats an eye. I just don't see how this makes in vitro fertilization wrong in principle. All it could possibly be is a criticism of how in vitro fertilization is done.

Finally, there's one even stranger argument. The embryo whose cell is removed would still be viable, so this doesn't threaten the life of the embryo. But the complaint is that the cell that's removed could also be developed into a full-fledged human. That may be true, but that's also true of the cells that were not removed. If we allow the embryo to develop as it is without removing all of those cells first, then we are preventing the development of all those potential people who could have been developed from the individual cells. There's a difference between criticizing an action because it kills a living human organism and criticizing an action because it kills something that could be turned into a living human organism. The first makes sense on the pro-life view. The second makes no sense on any view that doesn't treat the Monty Python mockery of pro-life views as if it actually got the view right. If that sort of view is correct, and every sperm really is sacred, then it's immoral to allow any not to form organisms. That would actually make in vitro fertilization obligatory and for every ejaculation to be saved for such use to maximize the potential of each egg and sperm. But that's ridiculous. It isn't any more ridiculous to treat a non-organism stem cell as sacred simply because it might be able to become a human being, when it isn't a human being in any sense more an unfertilized egg or a sperm cell isn't a human being.

8 Comments

I am not sure how the practice of abstaining from sexual contact as a form of family planning is unbiblical?

I am not sure how the practice of abstaining from sexual contact as a form of family planning is unbiblical?

Because the Bible tells us the reason for married people to abstain: 1 Corinthians 7:5
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. Avoiding conception isn't in there.

Jeremy, the church you're talking about is the same one that (in Brazil) denied marriage to a paraplegic

I'm reading a book now (by a Roman Catholic) that hightlights some of the inconsistencies of that church. I'm not surprised at things that don't make sense.

I still do not see it, the version you used begins the passage with the issue of witholding sexual intimacy from one's spouse.
It says nothing of a mutual agreement between the two. The issue is about the temptation that arises from sexual frustration that comes from rejection. The concern is not about consented abstaining but that which only one partner attempts to force on another.
It says if I give myself to prayer I should obtain consent from my spouse before rejecting her desires. To say that is the only case is to read too much into the passage. What about during menstruation?
I have not found any denomination that is without inconsistencies

1. If the reason to stop defrauding each other is to avoid temptation, then that applies just as much to cases of wanting to avoid children as it does to anything else.

2. Paul's concession is that mutual agreement is ok only if it's for the sake of devoting themselves to prayer. He does not indicate that he thinks of other motivations as legitimate, such as a desire not to conceive.

3. It should be assumed that it's ok to abstain temporarily during menstruation. Paul would not need to mention that, because the Torah commands it, and since Paul surely encouraged the Corinthians to read the scriptures. He wouldn't necessarily need to mention this exception, since it would be properly ignored in the same way that we ignore air in a cup when we say the cup is empty, and we ignore puddles of milk in a fridge when we say there's no milk in it. There's no reason for ignoring something like abstaining for the sake of not conceiving, however, since there's no biblical statement that that is ever ok.

4. I see nothing in this passage about sexual frustration caused by rejection. What I see is that it counts as defrauding the other. That doesn't seem to me to be limited to cases when only one person is doing it. Paul seems to speak of both parties defrauding the other when they are mutually agreeing to do so, since he tells both parties to stop defrauding each other (not one party to stop depriving the other). Most commentators take this to be about those who abstain for the sake of some sense of spiritual purity in being abstinent, and he seems to be including couples who mutually agree to this. Even in those cases, he says they're defrauding each other.

5. This isn't about denominations. It's about a philosophical view on the wrongness of contraception that strikes me as being inconsistent with a philosophical view on natural family planning. Not all Roman Catholics (and not even the official position) face this particular issue as seriously as those who express the views in the way I've explained them, and it's rare that natural family planning to avoid children would even be a good thing for Catholics, given the official view. This isn't about Catholicism. It's about the putting together of those views, which I find to be a strange combination that I see among Protestants in the quiver-full movement even more strongly than I see it among Catholics.

My main point is this: To say that using condoms during fertile times is worse than abstaining from sex altogether during fertile times seems to run afoul of Paul's point in this passage, even if the situation he had in mind was different. When the motivation and intent are alike with both condoms and abstaining, and abstaining is against the point of this passage, I can't see a reason to prefer abstaining to condoms.

again Jeremy I do not understand the "only" that you interject. I am not trying to justify the practice of abstaining.But the version Ellen submitted says "but perhaps" not only. If you take the position that any form of family planning is sinful then without a doubt your convictions would apply even as you applied them to menstruation.
Again the entire text I think is concerned with preventing sexual temptation within marriage. I also think Paul was addressing a common belief that those who engage in sexual intercourse were unclean. Although he himself said the marriage bed was undefiled. It seems to me that the inconsistencies are common due to trying to read alot of "only"s into texts which the Catholic church is famous for.
All of us must receive the text as it is written and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit as to it's application.
I had a similar problem with the text Call for the Elders of the Church to pray..... I by mistake attempted to present this to people with the mindset that it meant Elders only. I was forced by my own conscience to reconsider the text.
It does say Elders and that is what it means but it does not say Elders only. It seems that the except perhaps in Pauls discourse is not equivalent to an only. But that is my honest effort not to justify or condemn any practice outside of what is addressed in the text.

The only reason I'm supplying 'only' is because he says unrestrictedly (except for the understood Torah requirement) that it's wrong to engage in abstinence within marriage except for this one situation.

I don't take the position that any form of family planning is sinful. Otherwise I wouldn't not be recommending condoms over abstinence, which I have explicitly done more than once. It's not the family planning that's the problem. It's the abstaining. It's obviously not wrong to abstain during menstruation, because God didn't just allow that but required it under the Torah. But I see no reason to allow other exceptions when Paul seems to be talking unrestrictedly here.

Your elders example is not parallel. The form of Paul's statement is:

Do not do X except when Y.

The form of James's statement is:

Do X.

If James's statement is seriously, then you do X, but it does not say not to do other things. That's why an 'only' is inappropriate. If Paul's statement is taken seriously, then you do not do X except when Y. That has a built-in 'only', because the only exception he gives is prayer. If he understood some other exception, it would have been nice for him to make it clear by saying "or if you just don't want to have any more children".

I do follow your reasoning and would agree with you that my examples were not parallel.But the example has to do with interpretation and I was just saying that humanly speaking we look for ways to make a idea more definite than the information given would allow.
I agree that the "only" example given by Paul relates to prayer, which makes that very likely to be the only acceptable reason and with that any other ideas are merely speculation.But it does make it difficult for me use this as a proof text against birth control.Which by the way is the first time that I have had it presented this way. (I do not have a catholic background)

I've never seen this text used as a proof text against birth control. All I've seen is what I've said, which is that it seems to disallow the use of abstinence for the sake of not having children. As I've already said, that isn't an argument against birth control, just against this one method. I don't think I've ever even seen someone try to use it more expansively, because most of the people opposed to birth control do approve of abstinence for the same reason (at least in certain circumstances).

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