This blog started out as a companion piece to my book, Musings from the Christian Left (excerpts of which can be found in the July 2004 link) and to support a planned radio show. Now, its simply a long term writing project from a Christian Left Libertarian perspective (meaning I often argue for liberty within the (Catholic) Church, rather than liberty because the church takes care of a conservative view of morality.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Birth Control and Stem Cell Research (Geocities Rescue)

Part of being Christian is to believe that there is such a thing as a soul. Human life is generally thought to begin when the soul enters the body. After this point, the individual is morally entitled to protection. Before this point, no protection is required. Classical philosophy, starting with Aristotle, teaches that living matter follows spirit, that the soul controls and creates its body, which houses the spirit. This control at the start of life is as physically demonstrable as the loss of it at death, though measurement of it is more difficult. The key question on the beginning of life is when can it be shown that the soul has entered the body and assumed control?

Human life does not begin at fertilization. Identical twins are two beings from the same original fertilized egg. As souls are unique to the individual two souls do not occupy the same cell at the same time. Hence, the newly fertilized egg has no independent soul, but must be a part of the mother. The vast majority of conceptions never get to the stage where they can even host a soul, as they contain life-ending mutations from genetic code that is flawed, are from two different species or just do not work well together. If conception is the start of life then medical science is obligated to save every defective embryo, which is undesirable for both the embryo and the species.

The beginning of life is not at what American law calls "viability." The soul has clearly been implanted before this point. With the advance of medical science the term looses meaning, as the age at which a fetus is kept alive outside the womb is made earlier all the time.

Between these two points is the large gray area where the start of an independent genetic life is demonstrable. This point is when the genes of both parents control the development of the embryo at gastrulation. Before gastrulation twinning occurs and the embryo is properly described as a part of its mother's body, its development controlled solely by her genetic code. At gastrulation the father's genes begin to actively influence development. If an unnatural product is created, either by flawed genetic code or cross species fertilization, the embryo dies. After gastrulation the organism is genetically independent, which demonstrates the presence of a soul that will remain with the body until death. Because of that genetic independence it has a right to life in its own body.

Many in the pro-life camp object to birth control as much as to abortion. Such objections may be appropriate for the teaching of personal morality, but have no place in public policy. As a Roman Catholic I am expected to follow the teachings of the Church, not blindly but using a well-formed conscience. In this case, my conscience is guided by what I know of science. Because the genes of my father were not operative in my development until after gastrulation, I do not accept that I existed, other than in the mind of God, before that point. As a citizen in a republic I must act in the best interests of the body politic as a whole. The position of the church is to teach and to offer example, not to coerce policy or personal choice. For the Church to coerce moral behavior removes the volition from it - debasing the individual and the church itself. The era where all Catholics (especially Catholics in government) do what the Church says for the sake of obedience alone is over. The Church's proper place is to be a light of truth and faith, not an inquisitor of loyalty.

The desire of the institutional church to appear morally consistent has produced teachings that are not easily defended in the realm of sexuality, especially with regard to the use of birth control by those who are promiscuous. Promiscuity itself is disordered precisely because it alienates an individual from the impulse to fidelity that is inherent in the sexual act. Promiscuity creates misery in the individual, even without physical consequences. Does it not compound the sin of promiscuity, however, to also put another individual and ones self at risk of sexually transmitted disease, or to put a woman at the moral risk of an unplanned pregnancy where the temptation to abortion is very real? It simply does not make moral sense to preach against birth control in this situation, precisely because it encourages bad outcomes to promulgate this teaching.

The subject of stem cell research follows from these conclusions on birth control. Stem cells are harvested before gastrulation occurs. Indeed, stem cells are separated into groups and implanted into separate embryos to produce identical twins or triplets. They are only potential human life, so experimentation on them is morally no different than experimentation on any other type of human cell. Their state outside the mother offers them no more protection then when inside. Inside the mother, stem cells existing in their natural form in an embryo die more often than not. Society has no more obligation to protect cells outside the mother as it does to make sure that every embryo conceived survives. Any moral or religious teaching that ignores this obvious fact is, by nature, in error. The most that can be argued from a religious perspective is that birth control and stem cell research are not aesthetically pleasing, morally ideal, or virtuous; hardly a basis for public policy.

It is only after gastrulation when these cells are demonstrated to have a soul. Of course, possession of a soul and citizen in the United States and the legal protection thereof are two very different things, as is discussed in the next essay.

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