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.