Stem Cell Research and Abortion
Rev. William Messenger
For more than a quarter of a century, the issue of abortion has divided the American electorate. Although religious groups primarily lead the opposition to abortion, the reality is that it divides people along every conceivable designation. It does not break along sex, or political lines, and there is no unanimity within religious groups, including Catholics. Even the heavy-handed approach of some U.S. bishops (such as denying the Eucharist to certain politicians) has failed to garner a unified Catholic opposition. While it would be simplistic to suggest that abortion has been the defining issue in recent elections, it certainly has provided a springboard for distorting the question of family values by politicians whose own commitment to those same values is highly suspect. Perhaps more importantly, the inability even to discuss abortion with any kind of openness and respect for differing opinions has prevented the United States from reaching consensus on critical and related scientific issues such as stem cell research.
In spite of the uncertainty of U.S. law and the confusion created by judicial decisions, embryonic stem cell research continues. Beside the medical benefits, a new approach to stem cell research might provide the only breakthrough and possible resolution regarding abortion. There is no question that scientists are seeking the good of society in this work, hoping to alleviate a number of medical illnesses from spinal cord injuries to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
In this article I am seeking to alter the foundation of the abortion debate, specifically on the question of human life. By that I mean understanding the origin of human life with more clarity and with an approach that might assist in a quest for consensus on all sides. But let us first be clear on where embryonic stem cells come from, since there is confusion among the general population.
Stem cells are not taken from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body. Stem cells are created by the process of in vitro fertilization, i.e., the process involves taking female eggs and fertilizing them with male sperm. Often, couples will donate eggs that were developed at a fertility clinic and which they no longer need or desire. As in the human body, in vitro fertilization results in embryos being formed, and the process of taking stem cells from these embryos destroys them. Therein lies the problem for the anti-abortion lobby, since their position is rooted in the belief that human life begins at conception, and any termination constitutes the taking of innocent life.
Even some scientists see a moral dilemma in using embryonic stem cells for research. This dilemma led Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch of M.I.T and Dr. George Daley of Harvard to seek a way to create embryonic stem cells without embryos. In theory this would eliminate the moral objection of destroying embryos in order to retrieve the stem cells necessary for scientific research. It is an intriguing concept and may even prove possible, though at this point there are significant questions about whether or not it is practical and whether or not lab results on mice can be successful in humans. A deeper and more viable question is whether or not this approach is even necessary. For those who see no moral/ethical issue in the destruction of human embryos, the point may be moot. But that position does not address the reality that for others there is a clear moral/ethical issue. Is there another way to resolve the conflict? I believe there is. But it necessitates revisiting and resurrecting arguments that some have previously dismissed.
From the perspective of religion, there is no inter-faith unanimity regarding abortion. Some faiths, particularly many Christians, believe that human life begins at the moment of conception. The Catholic Church has been rather consistent, at least since the 19th Century, in its position that human life indeed begins the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg. Historically this position is based first of all in the philosophical tradition of the Church. Recent embryological studies also support that position. These studies demonstrate that from the moment of fertilization there is in the zygote a new biological identity that is neither that of the father nor of the mother. Therefore, it can be argued that human life is, indeed, present from the moment of conception.
Some scientists have pointed out that this statement is true retrospectively, i.e., true for all post-natal human beings. At the same time, they claim that it does not logically follow that the statement is true prospectively. As Dr. Richard Deonier, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Southern California has noted, “75% of human fertilizations result in spontaneous abortion or miscarriage. In 50-60% of the spontaneous abortions/miscarriages, the fetus has chromosomal abnormalities, suggesting that spontaneous abortion is a natural process for eliminating nonviable or seriously defective fetuses. Moreover, 20% of human oocytes have the wrong chromosome number, suggesting that the reproductive system is inherently sloppy.”
That data would seem to confirm the belief that the process of fetal development is intended to include the survival and continuing evolution of the human species. What the data does not do is negate the position that, barring any outside intervention, the result of a fertilized egg reaching full term is a human being. No one would argue that a child born with a variety of medical conditions, from Down syndrome to autism, from blindness to deafness, is not a fully dignified human being. The question is: At what point does the developing human life become a person? Should not this designation be reserved for the time of ensoulment? This term refers to that moment when God creates the human soul.
The teaching of the Catholic Church is clear. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) writes in Donum Vitae, “…the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.”
However, where theology intersects with other scientific disciplines, it must consider what those sciences contribute to the discussion, if it is to gain moral sway and not simply rely on or demand a claim of authority. There are those who argue that the question of when the soul is created is a non-starter since the teaching of the Catholic Church centers around “human life”, which begins at conception. That argument, however, is intellectually dishonest and just a little lazy. A declaration by the Catholic Church, particularly in the moral arena, does not end theological investigation and discussion, especially when it intersects with the continuing research of the empirical sciences.
In this discussion I would like to note that there is more than just a semantic difference between the terms human life and human being, the latter being synonymous with personhood for it is incontrovertible that human beings are persons. But is human life also synonymous with personhood? The CDF understands that personhood is essential to the abortion debate since in the above-quoted statement it chooses to use the words “human being”, implicitly acknowledging that rights append to an individual, not to human life in general. As noted above, the argument is strong that human life begins at conception. Becoming a human person (a human being) is a different issue and one of genuine concern. It is made all the more contentious by those who fear that a discussion of human personhood will create substantial weakness in their human life argument. Still, this approach appears to me to be the one breakthrough in the discussion that might finally lead to a national consensus.
The first step in this discussion is for believers to acknowledge that the very existence of the human soul is one of faith, and for scientists not to dismiss that existence because it is not empirical. Like every other element of faith, the soul’s existence cannot be proved. It may be possible to deduce that each of us possesses a human soul from both a philosophical and theological perspective, but neither of these is empirical and, therefore, cannot prove the soul’s actual existence. At the same time, no one can disprove the soul’s existence, and belief in a soul is critical to the faith of innumerable believers. Given that its very existence cannot be proved, can we at least reach consensus on when it would come into being if, indeed, it does exist?
I would like to suggest that the process of individuation is the point at which both science and theology can achieve agreement. There is a scientific way of determining when individuation takes place (or at least the limits within which it can take place), a moment when the rights of a human being would properly append to the developing embryo. From that point on a more compelling argument might exist against abortion. Prior to that time an equally compelling argument could be made in favor of stem cell research.
The most significant contribution biological science makes to the debates on both abortion and stem cell research involves twinning, the ability of the embryo to split into identical twins or triplets. Twinning usually takes place within 14 days, but since gastrulation (the developmental stage that seals the fate of the embryo’s cells, establishing the basic body plan) does not occur until day 21, there are occasions when twinning can take place after 14 days. This twinning usually results in conjoined, a.k.a. Siamese, twins and is extremely rare. For the purpose of this discussion, using 14 days as the point at which twinning no longer takes place, sufficiently serves our purposes.
At the point of individuation, a good scientific argument can be made for altering the language from human life to human person. Although much more embryonic development must still take place, and many embryos beyond this point will spontaneously abort or terminate, we are still dealing with one, individual human person per embryo. Prior to that time we may actually have embryos that will split into two or more individuals. Although the scientific term individuation is not identical with the philosophical term hominization or the theological term ensoulment, individuation provides a point of convergence.
Within the realm of philosophy and theology, the human soul cannot be determined to exist until individuation. Two individuals cannot co-exist within one body. Following the process of individuation, however, everything is in place for God to create the individual human soul, thus creating the individual human person. Although the creation and existence of the soul is still a matter of faith, at this point, that faith is not in contradiction with the empirical realities of science.
It is possible, even more likely, that the zygote will not twin, and therefore, some people might choose to argue that the human soul is already created before day 14. That argument, however, cannot be sustained, precisely because twinning is still possible. On the other hand, going forth from day 14, science and religion are in agreement, if not full harmony. It makes no sense for theology to claim superiority over science, particularly in an area where science offers both a caution and a support to the tenets of religious faith.
Individuation is uniquely helpful in the debate on stem cell research. Since scientists prefer to have the stem cells at a very early stage, usually between 5 and 7 days, it is not possible to claim with any certainty that the destroyed embryos are human beings—human life, yes; human persons, no. Destroying an embryo prior to day 14 is not the destruction of a human being and cannot be equated with abortion. Therefore no moral or religious reason exists to oppose embryonic stem cell research.
With regard to abortion, the issue is more complex since most women do not know that they are pregnant either by day 14 or day 21. As a result, individuation does not solve the personal and social problem of abortion as we know it today. For by the time a woman discovers her pregnancy, we are dealing not just with human life, but individuated human persons. This is particularly disconcerting in regard to Down Syndrome.
There is an increasing tendency to abort Down embryos, or, more precisely, fetuses. Down diagnosis is based on an extra number 21 chromosome on a karyotype. As Patrick Jordan of Commonweal noted to me, aborting these fetuses is done with little or no respect of their “potential” humanity or personhood.
The earliest diagnostic test for Down Syndrome is Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS), and it is performed at 10 to 12 weeks. Since this is long past the 14 days needed to determine individuation, I would suggest that aborting Down fetuses more accurately demonstrates a flat out “denial” of their humanity and personhood. Following the twinning/ensoulment arguments above, by the time of diagnosis science clearly identifies an individuated human person, and theology recognizes a human being with a human soul. From this perspective there is ample argument against aborting Down fetuses. So how do we apply these arguments to abortion and continue to seek a national consensus?
Individuation, because of its link to ensoulment, provides a more solid foundation for discussion, one on which science and religion can agree, and thus a starting point for both education and public policy. As already stated, most women do not know they are pregnant within the first 14 days or within the first 21 days, after which twinning is no longer possible. So how exactly does this argument affect abortion? Precisely in the same way that it affects stem cell research. Prior to day 14 we are not dealing with an individuated human person and it is within this time frame that we have acceptable options.
To date, most people who oppose abortion also oppose inter-uterine devices, and the morning after pill on the premise that they are abortifacients, that is, that they induce abortion. By linking the scientific concept of individuation to the theological belief in ensoulment (God directly creating the human soul), the abortifacient argument collapses.
Inter-uterine devices prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall. This occurs around day six, several days before individuation. In the case of the morning after pill, the process is different, because the hormone in the pill has a threefold effect: 1) It prevents ovulation. If the ovaries do not release eggs, then no conception can take place. 2) If ovulation has already taken place, the hormone thickens the cervical mucus, thus blocking the sperm and keeping it from joining with the egg. 3) In case an egg has been fertilized, the hormone thins the lining of the uterus, thus making it unlikely that a fertilized egg would be able to implant in the womb. All of these effects take place within the same six days before implantation and still well before the 14day period for individuation.
Using the more accurate designation of human person, instead of the more nebulous human life, we can agree on an acceptable understanding of abortion, one that is agreeable to all sides. As a result, we can educate and encourage women who have unprotected sex, to use the morning after pill, since it would not result in abortion. To be effective a woman must begin using the pill within five days, but obviously the sooner one begins the process the better. A wider and more effective use of the morning after pill would result in fewer women waiting 3 - 4 weeks to discover whether or not they are pregnant, and this would result in fewer demands for abortion.
Finally, something should be said about the human “material” that exists in the zygote prior to individuation. There is some concern that in adopting my arguments this material would be legally and morally unprotected. That is the whole point. In spite of the fact that the human material in the zygote is distinct (as noted above), the reality is that it is not yet a person. Since rights append to an individual and not generic human life, that material would indeed be unprotected. This should cause no more of a dilemma than the disposal of human appendages that are amputated, or organs that are removed, during one’s lifetime. Aside from the fact that the embryo prior to day 14 is not individuated, the heart and brain have not yet formed, let alone become active. If we can agree that an individual human person does not exist until day 14, there is neither a moral nor a legal reason to protect this material until then. My attempt here is to find common ground to overcome the antitheses that currently dominates the abortion debate.
Of course, since abortion is more complex than stem cell research, public policy is also more difficult to agree on. Yet even here, individuation or ensoulment provides significant inroads. It is true that if a woman does not take the morning after pill and becomes pregnant, we find ourselves as a society in the same situation regarding abortion as we are in now. However, the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other such groups would be freed from the restrictive policies currently in place. The more that we can educate and encourage the use of the morning after pill, the less likely a woman is to find herself in the dilemma of needing an abortion.
Not fighting over abortion would, theoretically, enable us to elect better (or at least more competent) politicians. It also would allow those politicians and the wider public to address larger issues that have a profound effect on our wellbeing and that of citizens in other countries. Certainly for society as a whole it will be less costly in emotional, political and financial terms.