Is the Embryo a Person?

Arguing with the Catholic traditions

Last August 9, President George W. Bush approved federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells, but only if certain conditions are met-including, most controversially, the stipulation that the cell lines to be used must have originated with embryos destroyed prior to 9 p.m. on that day. In this way, he hoped to compromise between those who believe that the destruction of human embryos is always morally wrong, and those who believe that there are overwhelming medical and humanitarian justifications to expand the research.

Like most such compromises, this one has not satisfied many on either side of the debate. It seems too restrictive to proponents of research, while those opposed are dismayed that the president appears to have compromised on such a fundamental issue. The leadership of the U.S. Catholic Church, together with many Catholic activists, has been in the forefront of opposition.

The national crisis triggered by the terrorist attacks of September 11 suspended discussion on other issues. But now debate is resuming. As it does, it might be well for those of us within the Catholic community to pause and reflect on our most recent effort to shape national policy, based on the moral insights of the Catholic tradition. It is fair to say that our efforts in this case have largely failed. We have not convinced our fellow citizens that embryonic stem-cell research is morally wrong because we...

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About the Author

Jean Porter teaches ethics at the University of Notre Dame. Her most recent book is Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics (Eerdmans, 1999).