“Until every human being created in the image and likeness of God is protected in law and cared for in life, we shall not weary, we shall not rest. And, in this the great human rights struggle of our time and all times, we shall overcome.” With these words, the late Richard John Neuhaus concluded his last major pro-life address.
Neuhaus was long a civil rights leader, both when it was popular and when it was not. In the early 1970s, he was poised to become the nation’s next great liberal public intellectual—the Reinhold Niebuhr of his generation. He had everything he needed to be not merely accepted but lionized by the liberal establishment: his natural gifts as a thinker, writer, and speaker; his background as an outspoken and prominent civil rights campaigner, indeed, someone who had marched literally arm-in-arm with his friend Martin Luther King; his leadership in founding one of the most visible anti-Vietnam war organizations.
Then something happened: Abortion. Neuhaus opposed abortion for the same reasons he had fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. At the root of his thinking was the conviction that human beings, as creatures fashioned in the image and likeness of God, possess a profound, inherent, and equal dignity. This dignity must be respected by all and protected by law. That, so far as Neuhaus was concerned, was not only a biblical mandate but also the bedrock principle of the American constitutional order.
Neuhaus’s liberal friends declined to stand with him as they paved the way for the contemporary left. But Neuhaus’s profound commitment to the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions placed him on a different path, one that led him out of the liberal fold and into intense opposition. He became the left’s most forceful and effective critic—the scourge of the post-1960s liberals. Neuhaus was not, as things turned out, their Niebuhr, but their nemesis.
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Inspired by his life and example, we the members of the Neuhaus Colloquium came together in September of 2009 to carry on the legacy of Richard John Neuhaus without growing weary or taking rest. Our goal is to examine the critical moral questions of our time while standing firm on principle amid a sea of expedient change. In this our first statement we take up the ethical, political, and scientific issues raised by President Obama’s stem-cell policy. This statement, the full version of which appears in First Things, represents the considered judgment of some of the leading scientists and public intellectuals today—a major statement on a pressing and timely topic.
On August 23, 2010, Judge Royce Lamberth of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines allowing federal dollars to fund projects in which embryos were destroyed to derive new stem cell lines. He did so because a very strong case can be made that the guidelines violate a statutory ban (known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment) on the use of federal funds to support “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” Judge Lamberth’s ruling, which was recently stayed by an appeals court panel, was meant to preserve a pre-Obama-policy status quo while further litigation proceeds—or the administration changes its guidelines.
George W. Bush’s controversial stem-cell funding policy sought to advance cutting-edge research while remaining faithful to the U.S. government’s longstanding posture of neutrality—neither funding nor prohibiting—towards research that depends on the use and destruction of living human embryos.
Last year, President Obama argued that such neutrality could never yield results, and that the government must fund human-embryo-destructive research despite the moral objections of many Americans. The president announced a new policy under which, for the first time in American history, taxpayer funds will support the destruction of living human embryos—a radical change of direction imposed with almost no public justification or argument, and indeed with efforts that mask its true nature and significance.
As the stem-cell debate once again makes headlines, it is worth reflecting critically on the new policy and the thinking behind it.
Obama’s new policy was announced at the White House on March 9, 2009, elucidated by guidelines published by the National Institutes of Health four months later, and came into effect with a series of grants announced the following December.
This new policy entrenches in federal law a deeply regrettable precedent: the principle that human beings at the earliest developmental stages may be instrumentalized and treated as raw materials to serve the desires of others. Yet at no point has the president offered any argument for treating human embryos as less than human beings or for intentionally destroying them for scientific research.
The president’s administration has treated the question of the moral status of human embryos as irrelevant to and entirely subsumed by what he insists is the scientific imperative to pursue embryo-destructive research. Thus it is that the principle of no government promotion of the direct killing of human beings, irrespective of age or size, stage of development or condition of dependency, has been discarded.
In his remarks, President Obama said: “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.”
We appreciate the president’s call for openness to inconvenient truths. Yet we are dismayed by his disregard for the most basic scientific findings regarding the human embryo, namely, that from the single-cell stage of development onward, the human embryo is a distinct, determinate, self-directing, integrated, human organism—a living member of the human species who, if given a suitable environment, will move along the seamless trajectory of biological development toward maturity. At the so-called “blastocyst stage,” when the embryo might be destroyed to derive embryonic stem cells, he or she is already a living, individuated organism. The very same organism—the very same human being—who, unless deprived of the conditions of survival, will soon be crawling, then walking, then a few years later asking mom and dad for the car keys.
This “inconvenient” truth about the embryonic human being does not by itself resolve the ethical question, but it should certainly give pause to those who would treat human embryos as raw materials for deadly experimentation. And it suggests the next question: Are human beings equal in worth and dignity, or are some, on account of age or size, stage of development or condition of dependency, inferiors that may legitimately be exploited for the benefit of others?
This question can hardly be more important for a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all members of the human family are created equal. What does our commitment to the equal dignity of every human being mean morally and practically? Is our humanity enough to merit protection and regard, or are we required to prove we have some other set of qualities or capacities (which all humans possess to varying degrees in the course of their lives) to qualify for respect and protection?
Shall we limit our ambitions, even at a price to ourselves? Shall we treat human beings in the embryonic stage as less than fully human because the embryonic human would be more useful to us dead than alive?
We believe these questions have clear answers. Every human being deserves to be treated with the same basic level of concern and regard that we owe to all members of the human family. If basic human equality means anything at all, it must mean that individuals deserve equal moral regard and legal protection in virtue of who they are, not because of their worth as judged by others according to their own needs and desires.
Ironically, federal policy has taken a sharp turn in favor of embryo-destructive research just as the science has begun to turn elsewhere. A series of alternative sources of human pluripotent stem cells, perhaps most notably so-called induced pluripotent stem (or iPS) cells, have been increasingly proving their utility. This is another truth “inconvenient” to those who are steadfastly committed to promoting embryo-destructive research.
Several of these techniques offer benefits that the use of cells derived from embryos does not, like genetically matched cell lines and lines developed from patients with particular diseases. Just as importantly, all of them offer the potential to advance promising research without imperiling our commitment to the equal dignity and standing of every human being.
President Obama has said that he supports the exploration of these alternative avenues; yet, astonishingly, he revoked an executive order President Bush signed in 2007 supporting the exploration of alternative sources of stem cells. There is no good reason to revoke such support. Whatever his intent, the president’s actions make it more difficult for ethically uncontroversial alternatives to the destruction of human embryos to succeed.
In the name of the American people and with the funds provided by them, the Obama administration has begun to incentivize the exploitation and destruction of human life for scientific research. It has done so without addressing the profound moral issues at stake, without offering a serious argument in defense of its approach, and in spite of the fact that alternatives to the destruction of embryos are emerging in stem-cell science.
We urge all those concerned for the American ideals of equality and human dignity, for the integrity of American science, and for the sanctity of human life to join us in asking President Obama to reverse his deadly policy.
The Neuhaus Colloquium, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and cosponsored by First Things, was founded to discuss questions of ethics and public affairs and held its first meeting in Princeton, New Jersey, on September 17, 2009. This statement results from discussions begun among the Colloquium’s members that day. The full-text of this statement may be found here.