Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Subset of the subset, arise!

By Leila Marie Lawler ( articles ) | Jul 07, 2006

More and more, listening to supporters of stem-cell research, I’m hearing the equivalent of the old playground “nya-nya” taunt: the brazen challenge that comes of knowing your opponent won’t take his best shot because he’s …a wimp.

Michael Kinsley has a piece in today’s Washington Post about stem-cell research that could be summed up as “nya-nya.” He simply accuses us of not being consistent, of being cowards about following our argument against using embryos in stem-cell research to its logical conclusion:

In short, if embryos are human beings with full human rights, fertility clinics are death camps -- with a side order of cold-blooded eugenics. No one who truly believes in the humanity of embryos could possibly think otherwise.

Yes, he’s right. He wants to catch us out, to laugh at us for thinking of a gleaming pastel-hued medical facility as Auschwitz. But I detect disquiet behind the mockery, because his point here is consistency, and even he can see how manipulation of human beings remains what it is, regardless of surroundings.

In the early 80s, while in vitro stepped out of the animal lab and into the lives of ordinary, suburban folks, the Catholic Church was tanking. Enjoying media attention over the issues of nuclear deterrence, the economy, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the bishops seemed unmoved by the implications of the use of technology in reproduction. They might have been distracted, too, we see in hindsight, by their staggering hard work re-assigning predatory priests.

In any case, the silence over fertility clinics is and was entirely self-imposed – demanded not by Catholic teaching, of course, which is not only crystal clear but also movingly protective of the human condition; or even, at the time, by popular opinion, which was pretty horrified. Now, without a doubt, the sheer complicity of so many renders in vitro an all but moot point.

(Sometimes I wonder what a bishop would see if he could put on magical Divine Perspective glasses when he viewed any given congregation. Would he peer into the souls of the faithful and find there a strong inclination to marginalize indigenous peoples? To proliferate dirty bombs? To refuse to restructure Third-World debt?

More likely he would find men and women uneasily wrestling with more personal issues, such as whether to undergo the indignity of producing a sperm sample; to discard some of their offspring stored at the clinic; to remove one of the three babies growing within the mother’s womb.)

Back to Michael. He gets a tad sidetracked with an argument that is simply beneath him:

And, by the way, when it comes to respecting the human dignity of microscopic embryos, nature -- or God -- is as cavalier as the most godless fertility clinic. The casual creation and destruction of embryos in normal human reproduction is one reason some people, including me, find it hard to make the necessary leap of faith to believe that an embryo and, say, Nelson Mandela are equal in the eyes of God.

Michael Kinsley, I’m thinking, knows that, say, planes flying into the World Trade Center, killing fewer than 3000 people, and the tsunami in Ban Nam Khem, killing approximately sixty times that number, cannot be weighed against each other. The moral difference lies precisely in the human minds that planned and carried out the attacks. The fact that nature engages in “casual creation and destruction” has always been with us, and has never, until now, justified man hurting another human being.

Forget that. It stinks. Back to consistency:

There are a few, no doubt, who are as horrified by fertility clinics as they are by stem cell research, and a subset of this subset may even be doing something about it. But these people, if they exist, are not a political force strong enough to stop a juggernaut of medical progress that so many other people are desperate to encourage.

Hmmm. That “subset of the subset” would be the Catholic Church, a political force (leaving aside the spiritual question) certainly strong enough to stop this or any other juggernaut. It will be harder now than it would have been twenty-five years ago, just because now every Catholic has a sister-in-law who underwent in vitro, and a little niece to thank for it. We have some repenting to do: not rejecting the person who results from the process we deplore, but rejecting, unequivocally, the process itself.

Our enemies respect us when we stand up to them, as Kinsley is saying in so many words in this piece (“… sincere right-to-lifers deserve respect as that rarity in modern American politics: a strong interest group defending the interest of someone other than themselves.”). The playground bully is getting tired of his power act. We just need to stand up to him.

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