Be Your Guide" (Jiminy Cricket)
by Susan E. Wills
December 7, 2001
Smack in the midst of the whole pre-Christmas whirlwind of activity, a weekday Mass homily grabbed my attention and won't let go. The celebrant offered this observation by Tolstoy, as a good place to start one's Advent reflections: The coming of Jesus Christ into the world leaves us with only two choices: we can either change our life or change our conscience.
This is a profound observation. It challenges us to take a hard look at our shortcomings and really commit to following Christ, or not, recognizing the full implications of what "or not" means for our life and salvation. Then it occurred to me that conscience may be the most powerful force on earth. Conscience impels us to do what's right and prevents countless wrongs. It can be ignored and muffled, but never really dies–not in an individual or in the human race. For example, people have committed murder for thousands of years, but that has not stilled the voice of conscience which tells us it's wrong to kill other humans.
Almost thirty years of legalized abortion have not brought Americans any closer to accepting abortion as something that's good, or even morally neutral. Conscience saves lives. Clouding or anesthetizing conscience is fundamental to the success of the abortion industry. It does it with catchphrases like "reproductive freedom" and with counseling that claims "it's only tissue." The industry even opposes "informed consent" laws, lest a woman's conscience be awakened to the truth. She might change her mind, change her life, and that would be bad for business.
The smothering of conscience permits nice, civilized, caring people to support and even carry out horrific acts against fellow human beings. Case in point: On November 25, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced that it had created three human embryos by cloning as the first step toward growing humans to the stage at which their stem cells can be extracted for experimental use.
Many, including President Bush, were swift to condemn ACT's cloning attempts. Polls show the public overwhelmingly opposes human cloning. Supporters of embryonic stem cell research have gone to great lengths to distinguish cloning to make full-term babies–which they've dubbed "reproductive cloning"–from cloning humans to kill them for their stem cells which they have inaccurately labeled "therapeutic cloning." The distinction is inane; by definition, all cloning is reproductive because new living beings are created, and the "therapeutic" tag is strictly wishful thinking.
The strong public backlash did not prompt ACT officials to abandon human cloning attempts, but it did usher in a major new effort to cloud and smother the conscience of the public. At a December 4 Senate subcommittee hearing, Michael West, president and CEO of ACT, professor Ron Green of Dartmouth, his chief ethics adviser, and others unveiled a panoply of soothing lies and obfuscations.
First, they abandoned last week's terminology–therapeutic cloning–as "misleading." We are no longer supposed to use cloning when speaking of human embryos cloned (oops) to be killed for stem cells. Now we are to say "somatic cell nuclear transplant." Apart from sounding less ominous, this change is not helpful. The phrase simply describes a step in the process of creating human clones, and applies equally whether they're being created for cuddling or spare parts.
Several panelists described the various research steps involved in what we used to call therapeutic cloning in the old days last week and how it differs from reproductive cloning that nobody likes. A large chart served as a visual aid. One begins with a human egg whose nucleus has been removed. Then the nucleus of a body cell, containing a full complement of DNA is inserted into the enucleated egg. The egg and its new nucleus fuse and begin to divide as if fertilization had occurred. This entity, in the middle of the chart, is labeled "somatic cell nuclear transplant" ("SCNT"). From the SCNT two arrows point northeasterly and southeasterly. The former points to a woman, oddly labeled "implantation." There's an arrow pointing from her belly to a cute little x-ed out baby, labeled "clone." The arrow heading southeast from our SCNT leads us to a petri dish full of stem cells, and from thence to a "cured patient" who is not x-ed out. See the difference? Cloning babies is bad; curing patients is good.
But something is missing from this picture and from the panelists' testimony. They neglected to mention that an "SCNT" does not simply, conveniently morph into human embryonic stem cells. The SCNT, code word for a new human embryo, will need to grow and develop for five or six days, to 100-150 cells, before one of Dr. West's employees can extract his or her stem cells, killing him or her in the process. Odd they should have forgotten to mention this!
Panelists steadfastly refused to describe this process as cloning human beings. This is just about "cloning cells." The cells are not really human. They're alive, but not the result of the union of a sperm and an egg. In Ron Green's view, they're a new biologic organism that cannot think or feel. Best not to think of them as human. Let's call them "activated eggs," Green suggests, then we can cannibalize them with a clear conscience.
Then Dr. West flourished his trump card! A six-month moratorium on ACT's cloning research will cost 541,800 lives! Pushed to explain, West admitted his estimate came from multiplying a very rough "guesstimate" 3,000 people who die daily "from a degenerative conditions" by 180 days. But he wasn't sure if that included all cancer victims. The preposterous claim assumes that ACT's research will fully cure every potentially fatal disease afflicting humanity (forever? they'll be immortal?) And it does not take into account cures from other therapies. This is not science. It's hucksterism.
The spectacle of attempted conscience-killing to gain support for human cloning should help us all to realize how precious a conscience is. My prayer this season of grace, is that we all get to know our consciences better.
Susan Wills is associate director for education, USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.