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Archived Online Discussion
Topic: Embryo: A Defense of Human Life
Date: 5-6 pm (ET)
on Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Carl Anderson
Supreme Knight
Robert George
Carl Anderson:
Welcome to our discussion this evening. We are very pleased to have Professor George here tonight to answer your questions about "Embryo."

Ed Blake
Milpitas, CA
With Obama now president, what will we need to do to stop F.O.C.A. from getting to his desk for signature?
Carl Anderson:
First, we need to be resolute and confident that we can stop FOCA. As our polling in October indicated, only a very small minority of Americans support the absolutist position of FOCA. The majority of Americans, not only do NOT want the position of FOCA, they want to significantly limit the position of Roe v. Wade. The first step for Catholics is to join the US Bishops' postcard campaign.

Bruce Goeser
Miami, Florida, USA
The book seems to put embryo adoption in a very positive light. However, a recent Vatican document, "Dignitates Personae" indicates that this practice is not permissible. Please comment
Robert George:
Embryo adoption is a question on which faithful Catholic philosophers, moral theologians and other scholars have not been of one mind. People on both sides, have need to think through the question carefully in an effort to assist the Magisterium in resolving it. It is true that Digntas Personae states grave doubts about the practice of embryo adoption, even while praising the noble motivations of couples who are moved to rescue abandoned embryos by arranging for them to be implanted in the wife's womb. Still, the document does not definitively rule out the practice. My own advice to Catholic couples, in view of DP and pending clarification from the CDF, is not to engage in embryo adoption.

It seems we are already in a Brave New World. Is there any way to stop the experimentation on embryos, the freezing of them, the discarding of thousands of them? What will happen if someone goes ahead with a human clone or produces a hybrid that comes to birth. Is this likely?
Robert George:
We have certainly as a society taken some steps in the wrong direction, leading to the abuses you mention. With the new administration in DC the situation is certain to grow more dire. Embryo destructive research and its public funding will be expanded. It is very likely that the practice of cloning to create human embryos for research will advance. As to the question of whether a cloned embryo will be implanted and brought to birth, it is likely to happen, though it has proven more difficult than expected. It is important to remember that a human being produced by cloning retains his or her full dignity and rights despite the method used to bring him or her into being.

Colum Tingle
Toronto, Ontario
There is some discussion as to the difference between fertilisation and conception. What range do you apply to embryo?
Robert George:
This is another issue on which faithful Catholic philosophers, moral theologians have disagreed. In recent months I have examined the issue as closely as possible, and have arrived at the conclusion that the life of a new human being begins when successful penetration of the ovum by the sperm occurs, and ovum and sperm cease to exist as their constituents have entered into a composition of a new organism, namely, the zygote (the one-celled embryo). I am working on an article on precisely this subject with my co-authors, Philosopher Patrick Lee and human embryologist Maureen Condic. Anyone interested can send me an e-mail and I will provide a copy when the article is published.

Robert J. Fallon, PSD
Brooklyn, New York, USA
Dr. Nathanson has told us that Roe v Wade was a smoke and mirrors victory based upon lies, false polls, biased media and the intentional suppression of life at conception facts, such as presented in this book, etc. Armed with these facts, how do we re-visit and reeducate, first the borderline pro-choice advocates, the media, our legislators and our members, that life begins at conception?
Carl Anderson:
This book is certainly a great step in that regard. It clearly states the scientific and philosophical reason for extending legal protection to all human life. We should also remember that every abortion has at least three victims, one - the child - is dead, but two - the mother and father - survive, but often feel deep emotional loss and pain. We must make it clear that abortion hurts everyone.

Robert George:
Dr. Nathanson's candid testimony about his own complicity in the campaign of lies and deception that produced Roe v Wade is certainly a useful tool in getting people to see that there is something profoundly wicked about the regime of abortion on demand confected by the Supreme Court in Roe. The story cannot be told often enough. Even many dedicated pro-life citizens have not heard it or do not know all of the gory details. We can begin by recouting Dr. Nathanson's testimony to those who are philosophically already committed to the defense of human life. From there, it's a matter of reaching out to those who are still not sure what to think about Roe and the abortion license it created, and even those who are inclined to think that it was sadly necessary. They should be informed that it is not true that Roe was needed to protect women's health, or to stop tens of thousands of women from dying from illegal abortions. They should be told that, contrary to what was claimed in Roe, there was no "common law right to abortion." These were lies.

Chad Norwich
We can understand why an embryo may be a person, and why it's wrong to destroy it; but isn't it asking too much to demand everyone else to understand this?
And practically speaking, isn't it a "safe" compromise? Giving in to embryonic stem cell research seems isolated from the other life issues at stake in society.
Carl Anderson:
The principle is important here. The fact that all human is to be respected is the whole point of the debate and it is why the other side is so adamant. The issue is, when does the life of a human being begin. If we are willing to concede that the beginning of a human being's life excludes embryos where can we say with any more certainty that it does begin. There is nothing to be gained by picking and choosing the value of one life over another.

Robert George:
No. It is worth recalling a time when even some who personally opposed slavery and would not themselves own a slave argued that it was asking too much for others to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of those held in bondage. The truth is, that it is never asking too much for people to recognize the humanity of each and every member of the human family, however small, weak, vulnerable or dependent.

Brendan T.
San Diego area
With the political discussions of embryonic stem cell research, we hear a lot of arguments about personhood.
But do you see minor consessions that we make in everyday life and conversation, that we can change? Or do you think that there really is a dichotomy between the way "ordinary" people speak of pregnancy and the lab scientist and politicians?
Carl Anderson:
Popular culture seems to clearly understand that the unborn are unborn children. I don't think any us, scientist or not, would come home and ask our wife "How's the fetus doing?" We have also seen a shift in favor of unborn children in popular culture and in several recent movies. In 2007, we saw four released that dealt with abortion and chose life: Bella, Juno, The Waitress and Knocked Up. Clearly it seems that many people understand what is going on biologically.

Robert George:
Lab scientists are not ignorant of the fact of human embryogenesis and early development. They are under no illusions that the human embryo is something other than an embryonic human. It is not a rock or a potato or an alligator. Nor is it mere human tissue or a "bundle of cells." Those scientists who suggest otherwise are being less than honest. Those who are honest yet continue to promote the destruction of human embryos simply reject the principle that all human beings bear an inherent, profound and equal dignity. They have, in most cases, abandoned that principle in favor of an ethic of utilitarian calculations. Their problem is not that they mistaken about biology; it is that they have adopted a tragically flawed philosophy.

Robert J. Fallon, PSD
Brooklyn, New York, USA
While this book correctly, does not address the question of the soul, one wonders, just what is the position of our Church leaders or teaching on the question of the presence of a soul, if and when a person is cloned or conceived in a Petri dish? What of hybrids? Are the hand of God and SCNT somehow entwined?
Robert George:
The Church has never taken a definitive stance on the question of whether the embryo at very early states is ensouled. In recent magisterial documents, the Church has stated that there appear to be no plausible reasons to doubt that from fertilization forward a person exists. The Church has certainly condemned in strongest possible terms the destruction of human embryos whether by abortion or in biomedical research. Therefore, as an ethical matter, there is no legitimate basis for Catholic to dissent from Church's teaching that human embryos must not be deliberately killed, and are fully entitled to the protection of the laws. As to the theoretical question, the conditions are now in place for a definitive statement from the Magisterium that every human embryo , irrespective of whether he or she came into being by natural reproduction or by cloning, is ensouled.

I am really interested in your work with President Bush on the Bioethics Council? How was it working with some of the world's brightest minds? Did Bush have input directly himself, or did he just read your advice?
Robert George:
It was an honor to serve Pres Bush, whose bravest decision was to draw a line in the sand against the expansion of funding for embryo-destructive research. Pres. Bush sought from me and others advice in thinking about that question and other challenges, such as cloning, germ-line genetic modifications and performance enhancing drugs. He was a careful listener who made clear his desire to hear competing points of view. I must also say that it was a privilege to work under the chairmanship of first, Dr. Leon Kass, then of Dr. Edmund Pellegrino. These are men of extraordinary wisdom and integrity. I learned an enormous amount from them.

Los Angeles, CA
Do you think that sometimes pro-life people use too many religious or biblical examples? This book gives a very non-religious argument, why is that important?
Carl Anderson:
For those who are not religious, arguments from science and philosophy are especially compelling. The Church is not against cloning, or abortion, for simply theological reasons. Rather the Church recognizes the fundamental truth that a close look at science reveals. Thus arguments from science, philosophy and natural law have informed our religious belief, not the other way around.

Robert George:
I have no objection to religious reflection or expression in public deliberation and discourse. The great reform movements of American history beginning with the crusade against slavery have been led by religious people speaking in a religious idiom. Moreover, our religious traditions are sources of great wisdom and should never be treated as if they were merely of private significance. Having said that, it is important to see that the sources of information needed to resolve the question at the heart of the embryo debate are scientific, not religious. To determine whether a human embryo is in fact a human being it is necessary to look to the leading works of contemporary embryology and developmental biology, not to Scripture or the Tradition of the Church. Once we have established the humanity of the embryo from his or her beginnings, then we should be inspired by Scripture, Tradition, and the entire substance of our faith to act in the public square in the cause of justice for these tiny members of the human family.

Chicago Illinois
As humans, we are easily star struck by the latest capabilities of science and technology. Our current society pushes us forward in adopting these new technologies before considering the moral implications. Our priests are quick to address abortion but few take up the issues of in-vitro fertilization and related topics. Can you name a couple of ways that might help get the issues understood and published sources for solid Catholic teaching on the topic?
Carl Anderson:
Certainly Catholics that are interested in these topics can look to organizations like the National Catholic Bioethics Center - which the Knights support - and its publications. Of course books like "Embryo" are very important as well, because while they don't deal with the "theological" approaches to beginning of life issues, they deal with issues in ways that accepted on a broad basis - scientifically and philosophically.

Robert George:
Christopher Tollefsen and I wrote "Embryo" in an effort to provide a resource that would be accessible to non specialists, including Catholics and evangelicals in the pews. It was designed as a popular book though one that would meet scholarly standards of accuracy. We have been gratified that some bishops and priests are making use of our work in educating the faithful. The question is certainly right that too often moral leaders have failed to see the consequences of new bio-technologies, with tragic results. The Church spoke out early against the manufacturing of human beings by in vitro fertilization but the message was not communicated as effectively as it should have been, and many people failed to see the disaster until suddenly they learned that hundreds of thousands of human embryos were being created and then destroyed or packed indefinitely in cold storage.

Jack Haefner
Chantilly, VA, USA
Some say that President Obama might not now rush to enact FOCA immediately--that he will wait until a later time where he might gain more political clout first (lessons of Clinton and "Gays in the Military"). Do you see maintaining the pace of combating FOCA to be problematic as very, very few know about the issue. Might we experience a loss in momentum?
Carl Anderson:
It is important to demonstrate now broad public opposition to FOCA. We can't take the chance that a pro-FOCA strategy would not try for a quick win in congress before pro-life forces mobilize. We have to have a strong defense ready to meet the pro-abortion offense whatever its timing, even with the challenge you have identified. The founding fathers observed that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; the same is true for the pro-life cause.

Robert George:
Pres Obama and his political advisers have proven that they are savvy operators. They know that attempting to enact the provisions of FOCA as a package in one fell swoop would be a miscalculation. I therefore expect them instead to roll out the provisions one by one over a period of time, beginning with those most likely to pass without dividing the Democratic caucus in the Congress. The most important question will be the one dearest to the heart of the abortion lobby and industry, namely, repeal of the Hyde Amendment which protects pro-life citizens from being forced to fund abortion with their tax contributions. It is critical to the pro-life cause that Pres Obama be defeated on this issue.

Carl Anderson:
Thank you all for joining us this evening and I'd like to extend a special thanks to Robert George for taking an active hand in addressing your questions. I hope you all have a wonderful new year! Our topic for next month is St. Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, a practical approach to the spiritual life written for the layman.

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