Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Catholic-Mormon dialogue on embryo rights and stem cell research

Yesterday I attended an event titled "Embryo Rights and Stem Cell Research" at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. The highly distinguished speakers were Carter Snead, a law professor and Director of the Center for Ethics & Culture at Notre Dame, and Lynn Wardle, a law professor at Brigham Young University. Both have dealt extensively with bioethics. (Snead, in particular, formerly served as general counsel for the President's Council on Bioethics and as permanent observer for the U.S. government with the Council of Europe's Steering Committee on Bioethics, and he is currently serving on UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee.)

Prof. Snead at St. Thomas, Nov. 16
The speakers approached the topic from two different religious perspectives. Prof. Snead, a Catholic, noted the Catholic position and explained how it is affirmed by principles accessible to people of any or no faith, apart from any special revelation. Snead explained that modern embryology shows that the human embryo is a human being, a living member of the human species; moreover, human dignity requires respect and protection for human beings at all developmental stages. He noted that attempts to distinguish human beings who are "persons" (and therefore deserving of respect) from those who are "nonpersons" (who may therefore be instrumentalized and killed) utterly fail and are radically inconsistent with the normative principles of equality and justice.

Research that requires the killing of embryonic human beings -- namely, embryonic stem cell research -- is unjust and should not be allowed or funded, Snead concluded. This position is correctly taught by the Catholic Church and many other religious traditions, but it is grounded in science and reason. Ethical alternatives to embryo-destructive research, including research with adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, should be encouraged. (For more from Snead, see his excellent essay "Protect the Weak and Vulnerable: The Primacy of the Life Issue.")

Prof. Wardle, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), discussed Mormon views concerning prenatal human life. The official Mormon position on abortion, he said, has consistently been one of very strong opposition, except in a few rare circumstances. Most Mormons embrace the sanctity of human life, he said. There is certainly a diversity of views and practices among LDS members, as there is among members of almost any religious tradition, but the Church teaching on abortion is clear.

The official Mormon position on embryonic stem cell research, however, is "no position," Wardle explained, and he offered some possible reasons for -- and defended -- the Church's reluctance to weigh in on the matter. But Wardle himself opposes embryo-destructive research, as he opposes abortion, and agreed with the pro-life view articulated by Snead. He said that adult stem cell research is "far more promising" in its potential for producing medical benefits, and suggested that it should be favored over embryonic research even just on utilitarian grounds.

Snead and Wardle help show that the pro-life movement is a broad coalition of groups and individuals from diverse perspectives, united in affirming the self-evident truth that all members of the human family are equal and endowed with an inalienable right to life.

Update: For some reflections on yesterday's event, see this post from Elizabeth Schiltz.