Let me repeat that: as reported recently in the journal Nature, researchers at Stanford University have successfully produced human sperm and eggs from embryonic stem cells. This should come as no surprise since sperm and eggs are specific kinds cells, and human embryonic stem cells have the capacity to give rise to all cell types in the human body. In fact, researchers have been working hard to make this happen for the past few years. And while biotech is hardly on the cusp of mass producing human eggs and sperm by such artificial means, this disturbing biotech achievement should have us all thinking.
The science of making human sex cells is aimed at more easily manufacturing and manipulating human embryos, whether for reproductive or research purposes. Making and manipulating human embryos, destroying them for stem cells, studying them under the microscope, using them to test drugs: it's only taken about fifteen years for Americans by and large to become comfortable with this prospect. The question is: how did we get here?
If you turn the clock back fifteen years or so, America was definitely not comfortable with the idea of using human embryos as disposable laboratory material. In 1994, for instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened the Human Embryo Research Panel in response to growing tensions over the issue of using human embryos for research purposes. That panel eventually recommended that, in some circumstances, federal funds should support the direct creation of human embryos for research purposes. When Dr. Harold Varmus, then director of the National Institutes of Health, publicly endorsed that recommendation, he was soundly rebuked by no less than The Washington Post editorial board. The editors wrote:
The creation of human embryos specifically for research that will destroy them is unconscionable.... [I]t is not necessary to be against abortion rights, or to believe human life literally begins at conception, to be deeply alarmed by the notion of scientists' purposely causing conceptions in a context entirely divorced from even the potential of reproduction (Editorial, "Embryos: Drawing the Line," The Washington Post, October 2, 1994 at C6).
Oh, how times have changed.
Fast forward to today and the conventional wisdom tells us it would be -- to borrow the Post's term -- unconscionable to oppose the sacrifice of thousands of unwanted IVF embryos if experimentation on them could lead to life saving cures. Today biotech is slowly cajoling Americans into taking things a step further and accepting the direct creation of embryos solely for research purposes.
In asking how we got here, we have to turn the clock back to the late sixties, when Americans first became comfortable with another startling technical intervention into the beginnings of human life: the chemical contraceptive. It took only a decade or so for the contraceptive mentality to sink in. Successive generations have since taken as a matter of convenience the possibility of manipulating the corporeal/biological dimension of human love, severing it from the loving union of married couples. When Americans became comfortable with these technical and chemical interventions, the first step had been taken toward the crass disregard for embryonic life which is commonplace today.
While that connection might not seem immediately obvious, it doesn't take too much mental work to grasp it. Pope John Paul II drew a similar connection between abortion and the contraceptive mentality in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. "Despite their differences of nature and moral gravity," the Pontiff wrote, "contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree." Contraception, abortion, the in vitro fertilization industry, rapidly growing designer baby technologies, along with our broad acceptance of embryo-destructive research: these are, indeed, all fruits of the same tree. They all stem from the same tragically distorted, dualistic understanding of human personhood in which our bodies -- even embryonic bodies -- are there for the using, to be manipulated and even destroyed for our utilitarian purposes. Sadly, couples who contracept unwittingly propagate the darkest inclinations and most destructive innovations of a culture of death.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).